Interview with Barbara Burgos DiTullio – NOW National Organization for Women

Barbara Burgos DiTullio is an active feminist and a real multi-tasking woman.

Born in the late 1940s and raised in Philadelphia, she served as the President of the National Organization for Women in Pennsylvania from 1994 and 2002, and has served on the Board of Directors of NOW in Washington, D.C. She is the lead organizer for WomenVote PA, whose main goal is to increase voting participation in Pennsylvania. She is also a Program Associate at Philadelphia’s Women’s Law Project, a nonprofit legal advocacy organization dedicated to promoting women’s status in society. This busy activist, with whom I worked at the WLP in the spring of this year, sat down with me recently to explain her view on feminism and why it is so important for young women to get involved in the movement today. She is truly a Chic Woman of the Month!

Tell me about your family life growing up. Were there any factors that influenced you into becoming such a strong activist?
I am the oldest of five-I have two brothers and two sisters. Back then, the expectation was to have a son first. Messages implied that boys were desired first in order to carry on the family name. Still, I couldn’t see what the big deal was about being a boy! My mother was a stay-at-home Mom. She was a hairstylist for a while, but never really outside the home until I was outside of the house. There were no real female role models at the time. Unfortunately, the heroes on TV were all male; there was not even WonderWoman.
Women on television were all wives and mothers, traditional figures.

That must have inspired you to become a role model yourself. What about any factors in your early adult life?
Well, I was married at 26 and divorced at 38. I expected a partnership out of marriage. Women may or may not believe they should be getting a partnership, but I believe they should, and that’s what I expected then! Sadly, at the time, men barely had any role models telling them how to be a partner. Sexism imprisons men, and puts them in particular roles. After about seven years of marriage, things started to deteriorate. There was no equality in our roles, And I knew that that was wrong. I wanted to be independent again, like I was before my marriage. My husband was bad at not being able to control things; he was a macho man.

So how did you get involved in the feminist movement?
I was watching Eleanor Smeal on Phil Donahue one day discussing the Equal Rights
Amendment. One woman in the audience spoke up and said, “I am a feminist.” But Eleanor said, “Well, what are you doing about it? If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem!” This really rang true for me. So I went to join the local NOW. My husband got annoyed. But NOW was a huge support. It have me courage; my fellow members were there to support and listen to me. In the 1970s and ‘80s, NOW chapters were popping up everywhere. Then, they were grassroots organizations in living rooms and kitchens- but they weren’t just meetings; they created friendships!

How do you define “feminism”? Has your definition changed over the years?
To me, feminism has always meant “equality.” Women just want equality between the sexes! We want equal access, equal opportunity, cooperative relationships in marriage, work, life, etc. And, it should be stressed that “equal” does not mean “androgynous!” I enjoy being a woman; I enjoy being a female. Feminists do not want to take away the difference between men and women, We just want to bring in humanity!

Yes, I agree that there are so many misconceptions about feminism and its goals.
It’s so unfortunate. In the beginning, explaining feminism as equality got the reaction of, “Of course.” But when the movement had some successes, it got branded with negative images. The media makes feminists seem like lesbians, man-haters, etc. Once these terms were used, the images were carried on.

Are there any other concerns you have with the modern feminist movement?
I have the impression that feminism today is not gaining strength with young women. Young women seem to have bought the spin that “feminism” excludes men. Women want to include men, and I think this is a good thing. Young men should want to help women and to get rid of the spin!

How do you think this problem can be fixed?
Well, voting is extremely important and young women should absolutely participate. I picked voting as my focus issue because I am passionate about women’s equality. Women must get equality across the board of issues. If they are not participating in society, they can’t get equality. WomenVote PA is trying to bring this idea back. I’m really trying to get young women involved. College can be an awkward time for young women. If no one has taken them seriously before, why would they think their vote matters now? Also, today there is not the same push for civic participation as there was in my generation. Back then, participation and voting was indoctrinated in us since elementary school. Kids today don’t take voting seriously. Often, they are uneducated. Kids are not voting in the numbers they should be-and women are certainly not voting in the numbers they should be. For example, Pennsylvania is one of seven states in which women are not voting at the same rate as men. We must ask ourselves why! Hopefully, through organizations like WomenVote PA and other movements, things will improve soon.

What are your opinions on the United States’ present political situation, in regard to women?
I have been a liberal my whole life. I think the current administration is seriously hurting women’s rights, their liberties, etc. It is a very dangerous time, and reproductive issues are just the tip of the iceberg (but still obviously deserving of attention!).

Other than voting, how can young females get involved in women’s issues?
Women, and liberals in general, must go back to the lessons learned from the ‘60s and ‘70s’ grassroots organizations. Women talk to each other. We must reinvent those kinds of groups and come out again. We must be able to say, “I
don’t care what you call me-I want to talk about my issues and I want women to vote.” Being active is incredibly important. I keep being active. I see things going on in our country and I say: How can I sit back and let it happen?

What are some suggestions for being active?
For example, I have been involved in a lot of marches and conventions. My first march was in 1987, in D.C. It was for Women’s Lives, a pro-choice march similar to the one held in April 2004. I’ve probably been to all the Marches for Women’s Lives. I’ve helped to organize a couple of those. I’ve organized lots of marches in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital. On April 4 of this year, 2006, I held a lobby day there. There is a broad range of issues at hand for women today; we want women to be able to talk about at least a couple of them! Our recent lobby day helped women talk to their lawmakers directly. Women of all ages should feel good about participating in these kinds of activities!

Are there any other thoughts on feminism and young women today that you would like to share?
I believe that the differences between men and women are socially constructed. Our biology may be different too, but biology can only go so far. Gender is learned behavior, and the stigmas attached to gender are unnecessary. Feminism helps get rid of them. There are a lot of ways the women’s movement has helped men to be in touch with humanity. It is too bad there is a backlash because that is what it’s about , Society can be brutal. It is imperative that we realize “women’s values” are human values!

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