Veteran Feminists of America
|GRACE RIPA WELCH - A founder and Past President South Shore NOW, Currently President Emerita, Mid-Suffolk NOW Stony Brook, VFA Board Member, YOGA Master
I was sitting in the Graham Paige, Tony B?s (our landlord) bootlegging car returning from an alcohol drop in the black section of Corona, Queens, in the time of speakeasies and the Roaring Twenties. He drives into the garage under the house, gets out of the car, goes to his wife, Mary, who is standing in the doorway to their basement kitchen, and without saying a word knocks her down, kicks her, beats her, her near-sighted glasses go flying.
I was cringing underneath the car like a small frightened animal. I didn?t know the word ?feminist,? but I knew this was wrong. I was six years old.
I was born into a large immigrant Italian family, sixth child in a field of eight, four boys and four girls. Calvin Coolidge was President when I was born, November 14, 1924. At that time the Ripa family lived on East 50th St. between Second & Third Aves. I remember well the Second Avenue Elevated. My father, Antonio Ripa, was from a village, Divieto, near Messina, Sicily, and my mother, Grazia Caccioppoli, from a village in the mountains across from Mt. Vesuvius. She was 17 when she came through Ellis Island, accompanying her grandfather who wanted to see "gold in the streets of New York"! During the period of quarantine, her grandfather died. What happened after that is a story for another time.
We moved to Elmhurst, Queens when I was 4. I followed three boys in the family hierarchy, so I grew up a tomboy, and ran with the pack?did boy things, played ringalevio, handball, stickball, stoopball in the streets of Queens, and came to realize very early that some boys and men can be violent, so I was always alert to any clues that triggered my antenna.
I was a good student, loved my teachers, played the lead in the opera Rapunzel at P.S. 127 Elementary; achieved the highest ever History Regents score of 98 at Newtown High School. I was tracked for a commercial degree, as college was not in the cards. My first job was as secretary to the V.P. Purchasing of Pepsi-Cola Company in Long Island City, from which I transferred to the Advertising Department, where I worked on Pepsi?s first bottle-cap contest, and was able to travel to trade conventions in Chicago and New Orleans. I was with Pepsi-Cola for seven years, during which time I took advantage of their student assistance program and completed several creative writing courses at Columbia University. I used this talent to write for the ?Pepsi World? house organ, a monthly interview column, a special article on military jargon, since World War II was raging, did on-site reports on Pepsi-Cola bottlers. I was also a volunteer behind the counter of the Pepsi-Cola Center in Times Square.
I met my husband, Frank, on a blind date; it was his first night in New York, having driven non-stop from Anderson, South Carolina, to Flushing, Queens, to take a machinist job with Ford Instrument Company, a division of Sperry Gyroscope, to make high precision parts for the war effort. I was sitting on a park bench at the 104 St. Corona station (#7 line for you New Yorkers) waiting for my girlfriend who came down the stairs with two young men with very heavy Southern accents. We paired off?I got Frank?he had never seen an Italian before?I was 16. (Who says they don?t believe in Destiny?)
Eventually Frank?s war work deferments ran out as the War ground on and he was drafted. He chose the Navy and was stationed at Camp Peary, Virginia, as Ships Company Photographer. Eighteen months later the war ended and he was discharged. He opened his own Photography Studio in Sunnyside, Queens, and ran it for 5 years, selling it at a profit, when again he was called to work at Ford Instrument for our next war. We were married in 1946, I was 21.
I continued working at Pepsi, which I felt was a very progressive company, but my first awareness of discrimination in the workplace was when I decided to conserve my two-week vacation time for when I was planning to leave work to have our first baby. During the exit interview, I asked that my two-week vacation pay be added to my final check, and was told by the female Personnel Manager that that was not possible, since I was leaving the company and the vacation pay was for those who were staying with the company. I did not feel this was fair.
Thinking back, I remembered that when I was 13 years old I took care of my oldest sister?s infant during my summer vacation, when she went to work in the City. Each morning, before she left the apartment, she would take off her wedding ring, put it on a chain around her neck, then tuck the ring inside her blouse. I asked why she was doing that. She replied ?Because I work for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and if they knew I was married, they would fire me.? I didn?t think that was fair.
> I again re-entered the work force outside the home when Jean was one year old, working as Administrative Assistant to Presidents of various firms?the Korean War was in progress, so my federal security clearance came in handy working for a microwave guidance firm, and then at an advertising agency in the Chanin Building, Grand Central.
When Michael was 7 and Jean was 5, I planned a 3-1/2 month vacation in Italy, bringing my Mom, who was born in a little village in the mountains above Sorrento, Preazzano. I studied conversational Italian for two years at night at New York University in preparation for the trip. I wanted to be completely autonomous, renting a Fiat sedan, making the grand tour. The top song around the world at that time was ?Volare? ? indeed!
Our third child, Lisa Grace, was born on Flag Day 1959 and our Queens one-bedroom apartment was getting crowded. Frank got a job at Brookhaven National Laboratories, Upton, Suffolk County, Long Island, and we moved to the suburbs.
I circulated my resume when Lisa was about three, and landed a job in the Advertising-Public Relations Department of Potter Instrument Company, Syosset. Jack Potter, founder and president, saw me dictating to my secretary, and went to my boss and said ?What do we have now, girls dictating to girls? Put a stop to it!? So poor Don Hawes, my boss, had to tell me to please do my dictation in a private office behind closed doors. The crowning shot was when I was up for review, was told that I could not get a raise because I had a working husband. I didn?t think that was fair.
The next job I applied for was as Assistant Advertising Manager for Chemco Photoproducts in Glen Cove, and I got the interview by sending a Western Union telegram (remember telegrams? How quaint.) in response to an ad in NEWSDAY and signed it G. Welch. When the call came, the caller was surprised to learn I was a woman, he was looking for George! I became Advertising-Public Relations Manager within three years, had a secretary (not behind closed doors!) and a small staff. I could share many ?light bulb moments??too many to recount here?but the 1970 Women?s Strike March down Fifth Avenue was the trigger that launched my full-fledged feminist activism, the day I joined NOW.
It was during this 7-year period with Chemco that I was a member of the Executive Board of the Long Island Advertising Club, serving as chair of women's issues in advertising. When I joined Nassau NOW in 1970, I was publicity director and member of the executive committee. In 1972 I was a convener of the Long island Feminist Coalition and coordinated its first press conference at Hofstra University. The event included an action against the Colonie Hill Convention Center, Hauppauge, and the American Red Cross for sex discrimination in their annual fundraiser. We threatened to picket the event (Bob Hope was the featured speaker) and from that day forward American Red Cross could not bar women from fundraising events.
My husband, Frank, and I joined with eight others and started the South Shore NOW chapter. I served two terms as president, during which time we held the first Human Sexuality Conference on Long Island (Dowling College 1974); the first assertiveness training classes at the Women's Center in Oakdale; the first masculine mystique committee; the first co-ed CR groups. During that period, because of demeaning coverage by NEWSDAY of a women's conference we held at SUNY Farmingdale College, we requested a meeting with Suffolk Editor, Robert Greene and held the first C-R meeting of NEWSDAY editors.
Because I served as Women's Issues Chair of the L.I. Advertising Club, I facilitated a program covering Women's Image in Advertising, and broke all attendance records -- 300! with full back page coverage in NEWSDAY. (Friday, March 2, 1973). I recruited Joyce Snyder, New York City NOW to show her powerful slide presentation, which almost resulted in a riot!
I ran for the Central Islip school board in 1976 (as a write-in candidate!), campaigning for equal funds for girls in education and sports as directed by Title IX -- I had found out that the sports budget for male students was $43,000, while the girls received only $300.
Believing that women's economic survival is key to their full self expression, I co-chaired the employment committee of South Shore NOW. In 1984 I planned and coordinated the 7th annual Women & Careers Conference for New Directions Resource Center at Southampton College, and in 1985 planned and coordinated Hauppauge High School's Adult Education Conference for Working Women, Sandy Chapin was our luncheon speaker.
Business Professional Women's organization voted me Woman of the Year in 1986, and in 2004 I was elected President of Mid-Suffolk
I shared a panel with Linda Stein and Carole DeSaram representing Veteran Feminists of America in Sacha Baron Cohen's film "BORAT: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan" (2006).
During all this time, my family grew and prospered. I am now a grandmother with two wonderful granddaughters who will benefit from the work of dedicated feminists.
Son Michael graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, was a Lt. in the Navy, serving on the U.S. Aircraft Carrier Kitty Hawk, in the Pacific Theatre during the Vietnam War. Michael has assisted in several VFA fundraising events. He is a writer living in the Bronx.
ACCEPTANCE REMARKS ON RECEIPT OF “UNSTOPPABLE ACTIVIST” AWARD
I proudly accept this award on behalf of the thousands of women and hundreds of men I have met during my 45 years of NOW activism working to educate girls, women and men of the benefits of social, economic and political equality. On August 24, 1970, day of the famous NOW march down Fifth Avenue, I picked up the phone, spoke to NYCity NOW and was directed to Nassau County NOW.
And from that moment my life was changed forever! I came to know fabulous women such as Linda Lamel, Betty Schlein. – Meetings then were held in the Ethical Society, Garden City. Attending there with my husband, I asked a young woman beside me where she lived, she said her name was Chris Golder, and she lived in Bay Shore. I said I lived in Central Islip-Hauppauge – why don’t we start our own chapter closer to home! And we did, along with Irene Wolf, who became President and Irene Morris, who became Treasurer and we were off and running, meeting in the Bay Shore/Brightwaters Library!
I know many of you recall those exciting times. One of our political meetings in 1972 was standing room only because our speakers were NY Governor Hugh Carey and Lt. Gov. Mary Ann Krupsack! Our Program V.P. was Ellen Cooperperson who made history by changing her name from Cooperman to Cooperperson and made the Editorial column of the N.Y. Times, supporting her right to change her name.
And I credit the women’s movement and an outgrowth of NOW, the VFA, Veteran Feminists of America, founded by Jacqui Ceballos, for my meeting Sacha Baron Cohen – better known as BORAT! You remember that 2006 blockbuster film,– a supposed documentary by a supposed journalist from Kazahkstan – I can share with you the phone call that initiated my involvement. The woman on the line asked if I was a feminist involved in the women’s rights movement. Next question was did I own a TV set? Then asked if I subscribed to HBO – I said No. she asked if I would be willing to be interviewed by a journalist from Kazahkstan about women’s liberation – yes, that’s what I do – talk to people about women’s liberation. And because I had absolutely no knowledge of who this guy was I agreed to go into the City for the taping, which took place in the art gallery of Linda Stein in Chelsea; Carole De Saram was the third interviewee. By the way, Carole was pivotal in the 1970 March, working side by side with Betty Friedan and Jacqui Ceballos.
The interview was bizarre and Borat was challenged at every turn by Linda and Carole, especially when he said scientists in his country determined that women’s brains were the size of a squirrel’s! Carole walked off the set at one point, but was persuaded to return “because Borat was from a third world country and did not understand our modern way” and the interview resumed with Borat fantasizing about Pamela Anderson. At which point, the interview was, indeed, over and Linda and Carole ripped off their mikes yelling they were going to call their lawyers and Ed Koch! I was totally bewildered and returned to Suffolk County, phoned Jacqui Ceballos who told me that the feminists around the country were in an uproar because they were duped by Borat – but some feminists who did subscribe to HBO knew him to be a comedic genius, and that we should be grateful that we got free publicity!
And now I am at the stage of my life (I turned 91 on November 14th), when one of my life goals was to live long enough to see a woman president of these United States – and come next November I will get to vote for Hillary Clinton – and with all your help, that dream of mine (and yours) will come true in January 2017!