• U.S.

National Affairs: A Dozen Who Made a Difference

16 minute read

BETTY FORD: The Most Since Eleanor

“I’m the only First Lady to ever have a march organized against her,” boasted Betty Ford, 57, after a chorus of black-clad women in front of the White House chanted their disapproval of her enthusiastic lobbying for the Equal Rights Amendment. Last year Betty became the most controversial—and popular—First Lady since Eleanor Roosevelt, speaking out on a variety of once delicate topics. Abortion: “I feel it is the right of a human being to make her own decisions.” Marijuana: “It’s the type of thing that young people have to experience.” The prospect of a premarital affair for her teen-age daughter: “I wouldn’t be surprised . . . But I’d want to know pretty much about the young man.” Her candor is deliberate. Says she: “You’re very foolish if you try to beat around the bush—you just meet yourself coming around the bush the other way.”

Her matter-of-fact attitude toward her mastectomy saved lives by bringing breast cancer out of the shadows into the light of public discussion and understanding. WE LOVE BETTY placards sparkle in every crowd the President draws, and audiences break into applause at the mention of her name.


Betty Ford’s “pillow talk”—lobbying her husband to name a woman to the Cabinet for the first time in 23 years—was one reason that Carla Hills, 41, became Secretary of Housing and Urban Development last March. As soon as the former Assistant Attorney General moved over to HUD, she began shaking up the bureaucracy with a speed and decisiveness that dazzled staff aides long used to a more lethargic pace. She found, for instance, that a rent-subsidy program for some 200,000 families had fallen so disastrously behind schedule that not a single family had been helped. Within three months, she managed to arrange subsidies for more than 90,000 families and then raised targets to 400,000 more for this year. Compulsively efficient, Hills has no patience for bureaucratic bungling: “I don’t just dislike that sort of thing. I hate it!”

Hills, whose father was a building-supplies millionaire, spent her childhood attending private schools, horseback riding, playing tennis (she was captain of the Stanford women’s tennis team) and living in the Beverly Hills mansion that was used as a set for Paramount’s Sunset Boulevard. After graduating from Yale Law in 1958, she became an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, and later set up a law firm with her husband and friends in 1962. She also taught at U.C.L.A. Law, wrote a handbook on antitrust cases and was co-author of a textbook, Federal Civil Practice.

ELLA GRASSO: Gutsy Governor

The 1936 yearbook of Connecticut’s elite Chaffee School predicted that Ella Rosa Giovanna Oliva Tambussi, the Italian immigrants’ daughter who was there on scholarship, would become the first woman mayor of her home town, Windsor Locks, Conn. That was much too modest a forecast. As a young wife and mother, with a Phi Beta Kappa key and M.A. in economics from Mount Holyoke, Ella Grasso was elected to the state assembly in 1952. Captivated by her drive and political savvy, Democratic Boss John Bailey took her on as a speechwriter and adviser. Bailey once told her, she recalls, that “the only time he would run a woman was when he knew he was going to be beaten. He was not convinced that a woman could win until he was shown.” Grasso showed him. She was elected Connecticut’s secretary of state, then a U.S. Congresswoman and in 1974, by a landslide, the first woman Governor who did not have a husband in office before her.

Like most Governors, Grasso, 56, has had a rough year. Women’s groups have assailed her anti-abortion stand (says she: “Bella calls me up and screams at me over the phone”). Most important, her longtime allies in labor and the Democratic legislature rejected her demands for cutbacks in social spending and an increase in the work week for state employees (from 35 to 40 hours) to narrow a big budget deficit. Grasso has responded by ordering layoffs of up to 6,000 state workers. “I’m still classically compassionate,” she says, “but what am I supposed to do? Sell the state down the river to accommodate labor’s wishes?” Answering her own question, she says: “Women in office can be as tough as anyone else.”

BARBARA JORDAN: Rising Representative

After only three years in Congress, Barbara Jordan, 39, the sternly eloquent Democrat from Texas, already commands more respect and power than many Representatives can look forward to in a lifetime. She serves on the House Judiciary Committee, where she voiced one of the most cogent and impassioned defenses of constitutional principles that emerged from the Nixon impeachment hearings; she is also on the Government Operations Committee, as well as the Democratic Steering Committee and the task force that drafted a Democratic plan to revive the economy last year. And she was the forceful co-chairman at the recent Democratic Issues Convention in Louisville. In a recent Redbook survey, 700 Americans were asked to name five women whom they would like to see become that still distant figure: the first woman candidate for President. Jordan, who was named by 44%, led the list.

Daughter of a Baptist preacher in Houston, Jordan earned a B.A. in political science from Texas Southern University and a law degree from Boston University in 1959. She then returned to her parents’ home and set up a law practice on the dining-room table. In 1966 she won a seat in the Texas senate, becoming its first black member since Reconstruction and its first woman since 1882. After engineering fair-employment and minimum-wage legislation and blocking passage of a restrictive voter-registration law, she went to Congress in 1972 with 81% of her district’s vote.

SUSIE SHARP: Judicious Blueprint

Susie Marshall Sharp, 68, the only woman chief justice of a state supreme court, has been a trail blazer since Bella Abzug was a little girl. “Women lawyers aren’t a curiosity any more, but I was a curiosity in my little town,” says the woman from Rocky Mount, N.C. In 1926 she was the only woman in her class at the University of North Carolina Law School. In 1949 she was appointed the first woman special judge on the state’s superior court, where her reputation as both a compassionate jurist and an incisive legal scholar endeared her to voters. In 1962 they elected her the first woman associate justice on the state supreme court and in 1974 they promoted her to chief justice. She has voted against reinstating a mandatory death penalty, upheld the state’s right to use funds for busing school children in urban areas, and ruled against the use of state bonds for private industrial development.

“One of the finest compliments I ever got,” says Sharp, “was when a lawyer was asked how it felt to appear before a woman judge, and he replied, ‘I have not been conscious of appearing before a woman judge.’ ” Sharp, who has remained single, is wary of trying to balance marriage and a career. “The trouble comes when a woman tries to be too many things at one time: a wife, a mother, a career woman, a femme fatale. That’s when the psychiatrist is called in at umpteen dollars an hour. A woman has got to draw up a blueprint. She has got to budget her life.”

JILL CONWAY: From Outback to Ivy

Even while she spent her childhood herding sheep on the family ranch in Australia’s Outback, Jill Ker Conway “took deep pleasure in ideas and wanted learning more than anything else.” Now Conway, 41, brings that zeal to her job as the first woman president of Smith College, the alma mater of such feminists as Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

After graduating first in her class from the University of Sydney, Conway applied for a job in the Australian Foreign Service but was turned down for looking “too feminine.” She considered a career in modeling, thought better and headed to the U.S.—and Harvard, “where I was at last taken seriously as a scholar.” After writing a doctoral dissertation on “Women Reformers and American Culture, 1870 to 1930,” she became an assistant to fellow Historian John Conway, whom she married and followed to Toronto. There he taught at York University and she at the University of Toronto. In 1973 Conway was made vice president for internal affairs at Toronto. Reversing the earlier pattern, John last July followed Jill to Northampton, Mass., where he is writing a book on the influence of British culture. Jill Conway, who intends to retain her Australian citizenship, plans, among other things, to expand Smith’s program for educating older women and hopes to set up a postgraduate institute for women’s studies.


After her sixth singles victory at Wimbledon last summer, Billie Jean King, 32, retired from competitive singles tennis, but she is busier—and richer—than ever. Last year’s “retirement” schedule included sportscasting for ABC-TV, playing for the New York Sets in the World Team Tennis league and publishing her monthly womenSport magazine (circ. 200,000). With additional income from advertising endorsements, the King Enterprises group—the financial empire that Billie Jean reigns over with her very supportive husband Larry—will gross more than $1.5 million this year. “I lived on $90 a month as an amateur and I won’t forget that”—or repeat it.

Next, she aims to start a women’s pro softball league, to launch professional mixed doubles tennis, to sponsor an “open Olympics” that admits pros and to set up a school for tennis umpires. “I’m not like most tennis players who are happy just hitting the ball and having a good time,” says King. “I’m always thinking how I can make something a little bit better.”

One thing that is a lot better as a result of King’s effort is the financial status of professional women athletes. Largely because King insisted on bringing the principle of “equal pay for equal work” to women’s sports, Rival Racketeer Chris Evert, for one, earned more than $350,000 in prize money in 1975. More than any other athlete, King inspired schoolgirls to compete on the field, with the result that hundreds of thousands of young women in high schools and colleges are playing on basketball, volleyball, softball, track and other teams.


Four years ago Susan Brownmiller, one of feminism’s most articulate and visible activists, disappeared into the library stacks. She surfaced last fall with Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, the most rigorous and provocative piece of scholarship that has yet emerged from the feminist movement. Brownmiller’s meticulously researched book—a kind of Whole Earth Catalog of man’s inhumanity to woman or, as Novelist Lois Gould called it, “everything one never wanted to know about sex”—may significantly change the terms of the dialogue between and about men and women. Many shrink from her conclusions: that marriage as an institution has its historical roots in the fear of rape; that the rapist is the ultimate guardian of male privilege; that rape is “the conscious process by which all men keep all women in a state of fear.” But she persuasively argues that all forms of oppression have their origin in the often brutal reality of unequal physical power and that this primal fact of life continues to define and distort relationships between the sexes.

A Brooklyn native, Brownmiller, now 40 and single, attended Cornell, leaving before graduation to study acting in Manhattan and to begin a career as a kind of intellectual odd-jobber: as a Newsweek researcher, a civil rights worker in Mississippi, a TV reporter in Philadelphia and a staff writer for the Village Voice. In the late ’60s she joined one of the first feminist groups in New York and, says Brownmiller, “all of a sudden I knew I was home.”

ADDIE WYATT: Bold Unionist

“I’ve never been one to keep quiet when I don’t like something,” says Chicago’s Addie Wyatt, 51, who has built a highly successful labor-union career by speaking out effectively against sexual and racial discrimination in hiring, promotion and pay.

She started at 17, putting lids on cans of stew at Armour and Co., where she joined the Amalgamated Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen. In 1954 she became the first woman president of a packinghouse local; later she was appointed one of the meat cutters’ five international representatives, and in 1974 director of its new Women’s Department. The same year she was elected vice president of the new Coalition of Labor Union Women. She has persuaded the industry to promote women to more demanding, previously “male” jobs and convinced many skeptical women that they could perform them. Now, notes Wyatt, “there are women beefluggers, journeymen butchers, hamboners and forklift operators, and almost all of them say that their new jobs are easier than what they had been doing and pay a lot more.”

Wyatt, the mother of two, says she never really wanted to take a job. “Like most women, I wanted to be a homemaker, but I had to realize that if I didn’t work, there wouldn’t be a home to make.” Today she contributes more than $20,000 a year to the home she makes with her husband Claude, pastor of the Vernon Park Church of God, where she also finds time to give an occasional Sunday sermon, often taking her text from Proverbs 31:13, in praise of the woman who “works with willing hands.”

KATHLEEN BYERLY: Confident Commander

“There will be a seagoing woman admiral in the U.S. Navy in the not too distant future,” predicts Lieut. Commander Kathleen Byerly—and none of her fellow (or sister) officers would be surprised if Byerly herself reaches that rank. At 31 she is a crisply confident Navy executive, the first woman ever promoted to serve as flag secretary and aide to an admiral, Rear Admiral Allen Hill. In the past, WAVE officers did work on staffs of admirals, but had far less authority than Byerly. She heads the admiral’s staff and handles all liaison between his headquarters and the nine Pacific training commands. Her husband Kellie is also a lieutenant commander. When he once considered resigning and returning to the farm on which he was raised, she vetoed the idea. “I let him know that there was no way I was going back to any farm.”

Byerly joined up after graduating in 1966 from Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia. She attributes much of her determination to keep on moving, preferably up, to her childhood as an “Army brat—my family was stationed all over the world and loved it.” She also loved the intense atmosphere of Washington when she and Kellie were stationed there and hopes for a future assignment in the capital—”a high-pressure post, which we both enjoy.” What Kathleen Byerly does not relish is the thought of combat, but she adds, “I don’t know any man who does either, and I would not like to deny any woman the opportunity to do anything she is capable of doing, including firing a gun.”

CAROL SUTTON: Soft-Shoe Editor

“I’m not in any way a traditional, tough-talking managing editor. I don’t go around banging shoes on desks or yelling at reporters across the city desk.” So says Carol Sutton, 42, the first woman ever named to the top editorial job on a big American daily. Colleagues at the Louisville Courier-Journal consider Sutton’s coolheaded style one of her greatest assets. And, says Columnist Billy Reed, “she handles copy better and has more imaginative story ideas than any other editor I’ve worked under here.”

After graduating from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1955, Sutton became a secretary at the Courier-Journal. Within a year, she won promotion to city-desk reporting and in 1963, by now a wife and mother, was made editor of the women’s section. She turned its coverage from society-page sycophancy to provocative feature writing and investigative reporting. One Thanksgiving Day, for instance, she defied her readers’ expectations by presenting to them the first installment of a series on “Hunger in Kentucky.”

In her first year as managing editor, Sutton has put an increasing number of close-to-home feature stories on Page One, including a report on alcoholism and personal profiles of a police informer and a policeman who lost an eye during an antibusing demonstration. She has also appointed a man as editor of the section called Today’s Living, formerly known as Women’s World.

ALISON CHEEK: Defiant Deacon

Boat rocking did not come easily to the Rev. Alison Cheek, 48, the Episcopal priest who is both a leader and a symbol in the women’s drive for an active role in the clergy. “The Episcopal seminary was good to me,” recalls Cheek. “It allowed me to extend my course over six years instead of three so that I could raise my four young children. It hired me as a biblical-language instructor, which eased the financial strain. But it took me forever to stop feeling grateful and start feeling outraged that I felt so grateful.”

The transition became complete one spring day in 1972 when Cheek, then a deacon, attended the ordination of a young man. “Before the procession began, I was very pointedly told that only priests, not deacons, could participate in the ritual laying on of hands. I can still remember the embarrassment, rage and grief that surged through me as I stood alone in the pew while my brothers went up into the sanctuary to lay on hands.”

Two years later Cheek heard about the planned ordination of women priests in Philadelphia and decided she would rather risk expulsion from the church than relive “the painful humiliation of categorical exclusion.” Though the ordinations of Cheek and the ten other women deacons were declared invalid, the issue will not be finally resolved until the Episcopal Convention next September. Meanwhile, Cheek, who lives in Annandale, Va., with her husband, a World Bank executive, is happy about her “freedom in limbo.” In November 1974, she became the first woman to celebrate Communion in an Episcopal church in defiance of the diocesan bishop, and last August was installed as assistant priest at the Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation in Washington. Says she: “I am convinced that the only crime I have committed in this matter is to have been born female.”

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