1970-1979: ERA OF CRISES

Women lobbied for rights, access

By Michelle L. Klampe of The News-Sentinel

On Jan. 10, 1979, Allen Circuit Court Judge Hermann F. Busse convicted a man of battery instead of rape, then commented that if women wanted the protection of the law, they "should quit trolling taverns."

His remark incited Fort Wayne feminists into action: They called for Busse's resignation, held weeks of rallies and protests and a large fund-raising event, and educated residents on the violence of rape.

Women across the country had heard remarks like Busse's before. They'd suffered through decades of inequality and injustice, simply because they were women. By the time the 1970s dawned, they were ready to fight back. Riding the coattails of the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s, they began a movement of their own.

Fort Wayne resident Mary Leggitt calls that movement "one of the most important revolutions of the century."

At the height of the feminist movement, hundreds of women in Fort Wayne were at the forefront, fighting for equal pay for equal work, passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and the enforcement of Title IX, which required equality in education, including athletic opportunities. They even had a place to gather — a bookstore called Sister Space on Broadway.

"Fort Wayne at that time was very unique because there were lots of women with very high social consciences in relation to women's issues," said Leggitt, who moved here from Chicago in 1974.

"Fort Wayne has been such a hotbed for the women's movement," said longtime activist Betty Lou Nault. "There are lots of us and we were very organized."

Feminists in Fort Wayne were active in the League of Women Voters, which was working to pass the ERA. They established the Fort Wayne Feminists, a group for activists lobbying for everything from abortion rights to gay and lesbian rights to enforcement of Title IX. They created the Fort Wayne Women's Bureau, an agency that offered support to women who were suffering from discrimination.

"We'd always been told `Wait, it isn't your turn,' " said Monica Wehrle, an early staff member for the women's bureau. "The message of the 1960s and the 1970s was `We must take our turn now.' "

Following national and state trends, women urged, and earned, the creation of a city commission on the status of women, established after Ivan Lebamoff was elected mayor of Fort Wayne in 1971.

A study by the commission, led by City Councilwoman Vivian Schmidt, showed the status of Fort Wayne's women mirrored that of women elsewhere in the country. They lacked political power and access to money and credit, as well as access to careers traditionally dominated by men.

The commission suggested creating a women's bureau to field complaints and offer referrals to women battling discrimination, said Harriet Miller, who was on the governor's commission on the status of women. Lebamoff asked her to lead the new agency, which began working in 1975.

Later, the women decided to turn the former city agency into a new nonprofit group. The women of the bureau held their first meetings on living-room floors. Eventually, the First Wayne Street Methodist Church offered the bureau a small office.

The agency became active in the displaced-homemaker movement, helping divorced or widowed women return to the work force. It ran support groups, and heard and offered help with discrimination complaints.

The women's bureau tried to stay out of the political fray, however. That role was left to the more radical Fort Wayne Feminists, the National Organization for Women and others.

The Fort Wayne Feminists were vocal, fighting for abortion rights, gay and lesbian rights and equality in everything. They protested, picketed and held sit-ins, including several after the Busse incident and another one at the old Wolf & Dessauer department store, which had a dining room for men only.

Pat Deihl was active in NOW in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

"Without that ‘radical' group, we wouldn't have the women's soccer team (winning the World Cup), women winning Olympic medals, 50 percent women in medical and law schools," Deihl said. "None of those things could've happened without groups like NOW. Things that had their roots in the early and mid-1970s are now finally coming to fruition."

The women's movement began to fade from view in the 1980s, however. When the ERA failed to pass, supporters became disheartened.

"I thought that logic and reason would win this," said Joan Uebelhoer, a Fort Wayne Feminists founder. "I think there was more hope then than there is today. There was hope and there was a vision."

The proposed amendment, passed by both the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives in 1972, needed to be ratified by 38 states to be added to the Constitution. In 1977, Indiana became the 35th and, so far, last state to ratify the amendment.

Still, local activists say they celebrate the changes the movement did bring — increasing women's earnings from 59 to 70 cents for every dollar earned by men; the passage of Title IX; and Roe vs. Wade.

"I get chills — it was a wonderful moment in time," Miller said. "There was such hope and optimism. And I think the potential for equality will always be out there."

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