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When I was young, my mother, a feminist, treated my brothers and me equally: We all had to do the dishes, cook, and make the beds.
I was lucky to have been raised by my mother, Alicia St. John Chavez, a divorced single parent who had strong social values. Machismo was not present in my family. My mom was a businesswoman who set high expectations for all of us. She wasn’t overprotective, though. As long as we did our chores, we could have free recreational time. I had a great childhood. Mom was always pushing me to achieve, and I felt she favored me over my brothers. My mom said that girls needed more support.
My father was a volunteer union organizer. Everyplace that he worked, he organized a union. I am my father’s daughter, although I was not raised by him.
I was shy, but joining the Girl Scouts helped me overcome that. I was a Girl Scout from the ages of eight to eighteen. I had a wonderful Girl Scout leader, Kathryn Kemp—she encouraged and supported me. I learned many important life lessons and skills with the Girl Scouts that I would carry with me throughout my life.
As a young woman, I was introduced to organizing at a house meeting by Mr. Fred Ross Sr. We formed a group called the Community Service Organization (CSO). He showed us how ordinary working people could organize and make improvements in their community.
That is where I learned how to organize people and communities. That’s when I realized that organizing is what I wanted to do. I later left the CSO to found the United Farm Workers union with Cesar Chavez, a grassroots movement focused on improving the lives of workers who place food on America’s tables.
There were challenges, though. I had been raised in a middle-class household, and I was now working and organizing farm workers. It was a culture shift for me.
I was always working, and my mother-in-law wanted to know why I couldn’t stay home with the kids. My husband’s family would criticize me, ask why I was out there organizing, dragging the kids to meetings and rallies. But I was lucky. I had people to help take care of my children—my mom helped and I always had babysitters. My paycheck went directly to my babysitters. In the farm workers union, we set up a child-care center for union members who worked outside the home.
I tell young women to follow their passions, to not let anyone get in their way, to stand up for themselves always, and to reach out and stand up for others. Time is the most precious resource we have—use it to make the world a better place, help the people who need help.
In 2002, I founded my own organization, the Dolores Huerta Foundation, and went back to community organizing. We work on health care; education; infrastructure; getting people to run for office, water district boards, and school district boards; immigrant and human rights; and organizing people in their communities. When President Obama awarded me with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, I was proud to be recognized as a community organizer because he was one, too.
I TELL YOUNG WOMEN TO FOLLOW THEIR PASSIONS, TO NOT LET ANYONE GET IN THEIR WAY, TO STAND UP FOR THEMSELVES ALWAYS, AND TO REACH OUT AND STAND UP FOR OTHERS.
WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA AWARDED ME WITH THE PRESIDENTIAL MEDAL OF FREEDOM IN 2012, I WAS PROUD TO BE RECOGNIZED AS A COMMUNITY ORGANIZER BECAUSE HE WAS ONE, TOO.
I think we’ll come out okay from the current presidential administration. I lived through the 1960s and 1970s, when environmental issues, the women’s movement, and the Chicano movement were just starting. Now all these organizations have strong foundations and leadership, which we didn’t have when Nixon was president.
We’re going to come out on top—not just survive but come out stronger as a community, as a people, as a country. ¡Sí Se Puede!
I grew up in Moline, Illinois, which is right on the border of Iowa. At the time, it was a town of only 35,000 people and sat in the middle of mostly farmland. The biggest employer was the John Deere tractor company. In such a place, and at such a time (the 1930s), it was natural that there would be old-fashioned values dictating the ways in which men and women treated each other. Specifically, when it came to women—or girls—there was an understanding that men—or boys—were superior. My own family was no exception; my older brother, Bob, was the recipient of most of the attention that my parents could muster. They didn’t have much money, but whatever they had went toward my brother’s future. At one point, in fact, money they had put aside for my education was given to my brother so he could attend military school.
All of this made me want to become a boy. My mother would put me in beautiful lace-trimmed dresses, and I would come back inside from playing, my clothes completely torn and covered in dirt. I would get into fights with the 11th Avenue C Boys, a gang of tough street kids, and could not only take a punch but also deliver one. My father purchased a pair of boxing gloves for my brother—I put them on one day and knocked my brother out. I was determined to be no little princess waiting for her prince to come and wake her with a kiss.
* * *
My plan to be another “son” to my mother and father completely fell apart when I was ten years old and experienced a very early puberty. I was ashamed of the bleeding and burned all of my underwear. It was clear that I was going to be female the rest of my life, but that didn’t stop me from continuing my drive for independence. My father wanted me to become a teacher, but I had discovered something that would become my life’s passion: acting. (Ironically, my father was a professional actor when he was younger, and he’s the one who gave me my love for the theater.) When my parents finally decided to pay for my education, my mother offered to send me to St. Catherine’s, an all-girls school. I would have none of that; if I was going to be a great actress, playing great women’s roles, I was not going to play male roles as might be required at St. Catherine’s.
When I was about to enter high school, my father took me down into the basement and told me that he couldn’t afford to send me to college. He said I would have to earn a scholarship. And so I worked diligently at my grades … and graduated as valedictorian. After graduation, I wanted to go to New York City to study at the prestigious Neighborhood Playhouse, but my father wouldn’t allow me to go there by myself at the age of eighteen. And so I enrolled (with a scholarship) at Northwestern University.
I finally made it to New York four years later, filled with confidence. I picked up the want ads and found jobs, and from the start I made it clear to my bosses that I would not put up with any kind of misogyny or harassment. For that reason, some of the jobs didn’t last long. But I didn’t care, because I had a sense of my own worth and knew there would be something else. In 1955, I landed my first big role and was earning $1,000 per week (this was a huge amount of money then), but I still couldn’t change the attitudes of the men in my Moline family. My brother shocked me by saying, “You aren’t worth more than $75 per week, just like any other secretary.” And I could never win my father’s approval. In spite of my success, he still thought I should be working as a teacher until I could produce babies. (I’m sure there was also a lot of jealousy over the fact that he was no longer acting.)
I WAS DETERMINED TO BE NO LITTLE PRINCESS WAITING FOR HER PRINCE TO COME AND WAKE HER WITH A KISS.
I PICKED UP THE WANT ADS AND FOUND JOBS, AND FROM THE START I MADE IT CLEAR TO MY BOSSES THAT I WOULD NOT PUT UP WITH ANY KIND OF MISOGYNY OR HARASSMENT. FOR THAT REASON, SOME OF THE JOBS DIDN'T LAST LONG.
I continued to work very hard at my craft and eventually became a TV star. My struggles as a girl came in very handy—even when I found myself at the top of my profession, I still had to stand up for myself. I remember vividly a producer who made promises that he broke, and he only changed his mind because I argued with him—loudly and passionately the way a man would. The argument wasn’t about money—I never felt secure enough to ask for more money—but it has to be noted that women in show business have never been paid as much as men. The greatest actress in our profession, Meryl Streep, is still paid less than male stars.
As I write this, I’m in my eighties, and I continue to work in film and on television shows. I’ve been acting for sixty years, but looking back, the happiest times of my life were as a mother. When you’re a mother, no one can really tell you what to do—you find your own way. I didn’t like being forced to be “a girl,” but I certainly enjoyed becoming a woman.
“We already decided who is running for the congressional seats and will let you know when a woman will run.” As a Chicana, Latina, Hispanic woman, I was shocked to hear that response from the controlling political group of men. This was 1981, a time when elective office for Latinas was just a dream. A large increase in the Latino population had created two congressional seats in the Eastside of Los Angeles. In our naïveté, we thought, here is the perfect opportunity to get the first Hispanic woman in the United States Congress. It only made sense to us to select one woman and one man for those two open seats. But no, the Latino men who held positions of power in Los Angeles informed us that two men would fill the seats. As a Chicana who had actively supported and organized volunteers to get Latino men elected in our community, I was devastated by the pronouncement.
The Latino community had made great strides against gerrymandering, racism, intimidation, and lack of political resources. We were finally getting opportunities to compete in various political seats. It was not automatic—we marched, we organized, and we empowered ourselves to overcome the hurdles of getting Latinos elected to political office. Latinas in our communities were shoulder to shoulder with the men in all those efforts. So their pronouncement—not yet, we will let you know when—was disheartening.
Totally unprepared for the callous and abrupt response, our small cadre of Latinas regrouped. While this was a setback, it put us on a path of strategic action. Leading up to this time, Chicana feminists were actively involved in two significant movements—the Chicano movement, which was a call to action to the overconcentration of Latinos on the front lines in Vietnam and the inequality of opportunity for Latinos, and the feminist movement, which was fighting for women’s rights but was basically a white women’s movement that did not respect or understand racism in minority communities.
As Latinas, we aspired for opportunity in the Latino community, and we were exploring, discussing, and raising awareness that the traditional role for women in our community was totally unacceptable. We, too, wanted to provide leadership and harness political and economic power. While supportive of these two movements, we started our own unique organization, Comisión Femenil Mexicana. Our goal was to empower ourselves and advocate for the Latina and her family. We also founded the Chicana Service Action Center, an employment training center, and Centro de Niños, a bilingual, bicultural child-care center. Latinas needed better employment opportunities and security of their children’s well-being while they studied and worked.
We decided to push back. We informed the men that we would have a female candidate for the legislative seat and quickly went into action. While it had been my goal to manage the campaign, I ended up the candidate. We recognized the challenges of running against the men in our community, which included a lack of resources and endorsements. But facing those challenges, we strategized for each of them. It was not the first time that we Latinas recognized we would have to work twice as hard to be equal.
WE NEEDED TO DEMONSTRATE TO THE MEN IN OUR COMMUNITY THAT THEY COULD NOT TAKE US FOR GRANTED AND THAT WE WERE A FORCE TO BE RECKONED WITH.
THE PRESSURE WAS NEARLY UNBEARABLE. BUT DISPROVING THAT WE HAD TO WAIT OUR TURN WAS A POWERFUL MOTIVATOR. WE FOUND OUR COURAGE AND DETERMINATION. WE DEALT WITH THE SETBACKS AND PURSUED OUR GOAL WITH PASSION AND FORTITUDE.
We built a campaign on the strengths of women. We reached out to the many female political networks and female elected officials that many of us had also supported throughout the years. We called everyone we knew and asked for money, we called on every volunteer we had ever recruited, and we hired a female political consultant. While we did not have the money our opponent had, we had volunteers and passion. We walked door-to-door every day of the campaign, we raised money, we sent handwritten notes and mailers. We assessed and reassessed each and every day. We struggled, we had setbacks and disappointments, but we knew we had to make every effort to win or at least run a competitive effort. We needed to demonstrate to the men in our community that they could not take us for granted and that we were a force to be reckoned with. We fought discrimination from men and women in our community as they, too, had bought into the stereotype of Latinas’ role in positions of power. We heard comments like “I would never vote for a woman,” “A woman cannot handle pressure,” and “I do not trust a woman representing me in the political arena.” Even Latinas in our community doubted our ability to win. The stakes were high, and we deeply understood that losing the campaign would be a tremendous setback for all women. The pressure was nearly unbearable. But disproving that we had to wait our turn was a powerful motivator. We found our courage and determination. We dealt with the setbacks and pursued our goal with passion and fortitude.
In 1982, I was elected as the first Latina to the California legislature. I have proudly served my community for more than 30 years as a member of the legislature, the Los Angeles City Council, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. We kicked the door open for many well-qualified Latinas to serve in the legislature, Congress, or local office. I have been followed by many unbelievably qualified Latinas to serve in significant political positions. No longer would the political bullies of our community say to any woman, “Because you are a girl, you must wait until we decide when you can take a position of power.”
In the history of the worldwide United Methodist Church, there had been only three women elected to the episcopacy. One woman had been elected in 1980, the other two in 1984. All three elections came after years of strategizing by women, including myself, trying to get a woman to be even considered as a possible bishop.
At the 1988 quadrennial Jurisdictional Conference, where new bishops are elected to replace retirees, the Northeastern Jurisdiction in the United States was to elect one bishop. Never had a woman been elected in that jurisdiction. That year, many male candidates and one woman were in the running. Brochures and campaign buttons were being distributed, and candidates were interviewed as the hopefuls seeking election vied for the combined lay and clergy delegate votes.
I was not planning to attend that regional gathering. Just two months earlier at a worldwide denominational conference, I had been elected to the Judicial Council, the denomination’s “Supreme Court.” I was the first clergywoman ever to hold that position. However, a phone call motivated me to attend since I was the lone regional member on the Judicial Council. So, at the last minute, I packed some casual clothes in a bag and off I went.
The voting began. To win the election, a candidate needed more than 60 percent of the delegates’ votes. Each delegate could vote for one of the listed candidates, but there was a possibility of write-in votes. After the first two ballots, it was clear the clergywoman candidate we had managed to get on the ballot was receiving little support. On the third ballot report, I heard a familiar name: Susan Morrison, one vote. My name! Amused, I wondered which friend had written it. On the next ballot, I received two votes. On the next ballot, there were seventeen votes!
And then the drama began.
Question from the Chair: Now that Susan Morrison has received more than ten votes, will a biographical sheet be distributed?
Answer: Not at this time.
On this third day of the Jurisdictional Conference, I was an unexpected, unprepared candidate for the episcopacy. Frankly, I was stunned. As the morning session drew to a close, four women converged on me, accompanied me to the snack bar, and began to strategize what to do. First things first, they said. The vitae sheet, the requested biographical information, needed to be prepared.
Together we thought of what should be included. Education? Church service? One of the women wrote the information down in her calligraphic script on a plain sheet of paper. Another took the final product off to be copied and distributed.
Who were those women who led me through the “what to do next” when the numbness, the precursor of the emotional shock that would come, was beginning to set in? There was Lynne, who had been “the woman candidate” in our jurisdiction in 1984. There was Diedra, who was “the woman candidate” in the Northeastern Jurisdiction this very year. And there were Molly and Linda, two women who had been working on Diedra’s campaign. All were committed to helping a woman be elected; two of them had aspirations themselves and had anticipated what it would mean to be chosen. They had long considered the historic consecration process, had understood the enormous responsibility of administering the hundreds of churches, clergy, and conferences that is part of the position, and knew that this election was for life. Life! Each now sat with me, helping me respond.
By evening, the voting was over. I had won—a woman had been elected. The barrier of exclusion was broken. Not anticipating this in any way, I had not packed properly. The consecration service was immediately before me. My beach sandals would just have to do, but I really needed to borrow a robe and stole. Off I went to once again call on others for help. From those moments on, my life and my call to ministry were changed forever.
Out of the flashes of memory of those most unusual hours, the image of the five of us around the table in the college snack bar comes to me. A model of sisterhood … a symbol of female community … of dreams tempered with reality … unselfish goals … gifts shared … bonds of respect. Truly it is a vision of what I continue to hope the larger faith community can be.
Compilation copyright © 2017 by Melissa de la Cruz