SUBURBAN HOUSEWIFE/MOTHER “WOMENS LIBBER”, NONOGENARIAN
NOVEMBER 2009 Feminist of the Month
Elizabeth Shepard with husband,
I’ve lived two lives, says Betty Shepard, today of Naples, Florida. When the feminist movement began I was living
in the suburbs of New York, caring for my husband and children and involved in community affairs. I never thought
of myself as deprived in any way -- until 1970, when, as a lark, I took part in the march for Equality on Fifth
Avenue in New York and was awakened to the inequities and discrimination towards the female sex.
To start at the beginning: I was born in Beloit, Wisconsin October 7, 1918, the only child of Hungarian immigrants.
My parents, Louis and Elizabeth Vigh, named me Elizabeth Louise for both of them. I was supposed to be a boy, but
they loved me, and I knew it.
At age seven, the day we moved to Elkart, Indiana, I explored my new neighborhood and found a tennis tournament
being held for local children. Someone asked “Do you play ?” I didn’t, but I would like to. I wasn’t wearing sneakers,
so was told to remove my shoes and a tennis racket was put into my hand . “All you have to do is hit the ball over
the net and keep going,” someone said. I won the match from a little boy, and I was hooked. From then on much of
my youth was spent playing tennis. I met my future husband John Shepard on the courts at the University of Wisconsin
where I entered college in 1936.
My dad didn’t know why women wanted to go to college, but I had to go, though I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what
to study. My father had ulcers, so I chose a career in dietetics to find out why. But when I graduated his ulcers
I met John Shepard, again in New York City, where he was studying at Cornell Medical College and I was in the first
class Cornell held for therapeutic dieticians. My first job was at Carle Memorial Hospital in Urbana, Ill. I returned
to New York and married John in 1942. I worked as a therapeutic dietician at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic
and later, at the Good Housekeeping Magazine Bureau as a chemist. This was during World War II, and John was soon
conscripted . Now, with a salary, we could afford the baby I so wanted. When my son was born I worried that I couldn’t
possibly love another child as much. But as soon as I saw my daughter, who was born in 1947, I knew I could. I
learned then that love is never limited, but extends to take in all those that we can.
After the war we moved to Manhasset, Long Island, where John entered private practice. Now I was a suburban housewife.
Volunteering became a big part of my life. I was president of the PTA and active in local politics. I liked being
a mother. I think I said no to my children 3 times -- once to my son when he wanted a motorcycle, to my daughter
when she wanted a horse, and no to any fighting before breakfast. And I said no to myself when I was asked to run
for NY State Congress. How could I have two teenagers at home and a husband who rarely was.
I never thought of myself as deprived in any way until August, 1970 when a friend called to tell me that NOW, the
National Org for Women was going to have a march down 5th Avenue for equal rights. “Let’s go” she said. “Oh Maggie,
I said.... we’ve just been thru the Civil Rights and the Peace movement, and now this movement of kooky women?
I’m not sure I want to go.” “What else do you have to do?,” she asked. But the time of the march was 5 o’clock.
“That's the time I prepare dinner, I said. I’ll check with John.” “Oh John won’t care”, she replied. And of course
A few hours later I was marching on 5th Avenue with thousands of women I had never seen before, many who were older
than I, some nicely dressed, and some I would have liked to neaten up a bit. The sidewalks were filled with on
- lookers. People were pouring out of offices staring at us. “Betty Shepard , what on earth are you doing here?”
As I marched so many emotions were pouring over me. I couldn’t sort them out. The march ended at the Public Library
Park where we heard speeches by Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Flo Kennedy and many others . The word I kept hearing
was equality, equality, equality… and I thought, “I don’t feel unequal in any way.” Then I heard that the march
was on August 26 , 1970 because it was the 50th anniversary of suffrage, the amendment that finally gave women
the right to vote . “ My goodness, I thought. In 1920 I was two years old and my mother couldn’t vote!”
We were given a flyer which stated the reasons for the march. The first was educational opportunities, the second
was equal pay for equal work, the third was childcare. I had trouble with this one, as I felt strongly that women
should take care of their children. The fourth was reproductive rights -- all reasonable demands. These were definitely
not kooky women! I decided I ‘d better look up this NOW.
The next week I joined the Nassau County chapter. The members, mostly housewives, were so smart. I paid dues, but
there were scholarships for those who couldn’t afford to. You had to be active at least on one committee. I looked
at the numerous committees and thought, I need to learn about consciousness raising. And I’ve done lots of public
speaking, so I should be on the speaker’s bureau. There was one called female sexuality. What did that mean? Then
there was a media committee. I joined them all.
Thus began 15 years of almost around the clock work for women’s rights -- speaking, lobbying, organizing, doing
surveys. I spoke at churches, women’s groups, men’s clubs…I especially enjoyed speaking to high school kids. In
the school’s hallways I’d hear. “We’re going to hear a women’s libber.” And when I faced the students I could see
the disappointment in some. “Hum, you were expecting a young woman in a T- shirt and jeans and no bra”, I’d say,
not an old grey haired woman. Then I’d begin my spiel. The kids were intrigued. After the lecture many, mostly
boys, would stay to talk to me. I remember one boy saying, “I know what you’re talking about.” “Oh, is your mother
a feminist?” I asked ? “ No, he said, but my father left us and my mother had to go to work, and she gets so mad
because men doing the same work are getting a lot more money.” “Your mother is a feminist,” I told him.
Then there was lobbying in Albany and in DC. Once in DC in the corridor of the capitol I bumped into a group of
teen age boys add - from Catholic High Schools. “Are you here to study legislation ? ”I asked them. “No, they said,
to lobby against abortion.” Suddenly I was steaming, but I made myself cool it. “Do you have sisters?” I asked.
Most said yes.“ Do you love them?” “Yes.” “Supposing your sister is gang raped and becomes pregnant and she doesn’t
want to have a child by a rapist. Would you want her to go thru that?” Well, they’d never thought of this. “And
furthermore, it could happen to your mother as well" I said. I left them looking puzzled, but thinking.
One day I ran into one of my senators in the hall
at the capitol. I stopped him and, in a rather controversial way, I have to admit, I asked …” How are you going
to vote on the abortion legislation? Are you going to vote as your constituents want you to, or your religion ?
He would vote his conscience, he said, and he turned and walked away from me. Before I knew it my hand had caught
his shirt tails , and I was demanding of him….” I want an answer! “ I was so enraged that I didn’t hear his answer.
I learned then that anger is not only blind, but deaf, and realized that if I was to be persuasive I had to control
She was born handicapped. She was
In 1971 word came that Midge Kovaks of New York City NOW’s Image Committee was organizing a national campaign aimed
at the sexist media. The idea was to stop the portrayal of girls and women as silly, immature nincompoops. We were
given a record about sexism in the
media, along with several wonderful posters, which I later learned were made by Anne Tolstoy Wallach of the J.
Walter Thompson Ad Agency. One poster of a sweet toddler, a little girl who looked perfect in every way, really
got to me. The caption said, “This healthy, normal baby has a handicap. She was born female.” This was incredibly
heartbreaking. I had to spread this around. I called the local radio station, got an appointment to see the director.
We talked about the rampant sexism in the media. “Would you NOW women like to do a public broadcast?, he wanted
to know. “ Do I hear you correctly? I asked in disbelief. I’ll ask our board.”
But the board had no idea what to do. A month later they hadn’t come up with anything, so I realized I would have
to do it. I decided I’d create a program rather than give a lecture, so I took a crash course in Communications
at Hofstra U, then developed the program. Called SPEAKING NOW I presented it on local radio for five years. My
husband was retiring and we were moving to Florida, so I turned it over to the chapter. It ran for another 19 years,
and then I lost track.
The Nassau Country Medical Auxiliary, to which I, as the wife of a physician, belonged, asked me to speak to them
about SPEAKING NOW. I would rather do a program about doctor’s wives -- about you, I said.. and suggested they
let me interview them. They agreed.
It was a real eye opener for all of them. One doctor’s wife was a doctor herself, but most were, like me, more
or less happy housewives. The program broke all attendance records for the Auxiliary. Now they asked me to do another
on female sexuality. That one blew their minds and they insisted their husbands needed to hear this. Soon I received
a call from the president of the medical society asking me to give the lecture I’d given his wife. I said yes,
but the women wanted the same lecture I’d given them for their husbands. How was I going to do that? And there
was no way I could adapt it. I told my husband he didn’t have to attend, but he insisted, so I had not only to
talk to husbands of my friend’s about female sexuality, but to my own husband.
It was the last and most important meeting of the month. Standing before this prestigious group I told them that
I was nervous, but as I looked at that sea of male doctors (and about 4 female doctors) I realized that in this
case I was the professional. I began by saying that I was exceeding my own comfort level and if I exceeded their’s
, to feel free to leave. Then I began to explain that female sexuality meant everything about women -- how they
wore their hair, how they walked and particular how they talked. And I spoke of those body parts that we had no
terminology for. I told them that I’d asked women how they referred to those secret parts and got more than 26
astounding names. Most women called them simply “my privates’, or “down there,” But the ones I found most interesting
were “tinkalinkee” and, can you believe, “Christmas.” The breasts were most synonymous with food items, everything
from walnuts to water melons. “No one has ever talks about the clitoris, I told them: the organ that provides orgasm
for women.” I went on to explain different ways women can come to orgasm. After the lecture a doctor stood up and
said he’d come only because it was the last meeting , and he couldn’t believe all he’d learned. There was a wonderful
round of applause. No one had walked out.
For many years John and I attended golf tournaments in Pine Needles, N.C. By now I’m known as “that women’s libber.”
Once a man came in and addressed John, ”God damn, all we hear today is women’s lib" .. then he said approvingly,
“That’s some kind of a wife you have.” My husband replied, "Yes,she’ll nail you to the cross every time with
her truth.” So I lived the feminist movement with a feminist husband.
As I was beginning to understand this new anger within me I was no longer the Betty my husband and friends knew.
But as I liberated myself, my husband, too was liberated. Its just a happy and exciting place to be .
I enjoyed both my lives -- that as a housewife/mother and that of a social revolutionary. The early feminist movement
was a time of constant, intense work with many set backs and frustrations, but we accomplished so much, and, looking
back I see that, in spite of the negatives, it was probably the most joyful and fun revolution of all time and
I was fortunate to be a part of it.
Elizabeth Shepard received the VFA medal of honor
in 2002 at a VFA event held with West Palm Beach NOW and Florida Atlantic University. She and her husband have
lived in Naples, Florida since 1985. Dr. John Shepard was a noted neurosurgeon. Their son, Dr John Shepard Jr,
is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in MN. Daughter, Judy is a speech therapist in California.
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