Frances Bridgeman

As Interviewed by Ellie Nichols, March 13, 2013

Frances Bridgeman: In Her Own Words

[My name is] Frances Bridgeman. [My date of birth is] July 25, 1931. I was born in Kansas City, Missouri. I had one sister; sheís no longer alive. My sister was Margaret; we called her Margie. My parents were John and Margaret Willis. My spouse was Richard Bridgeman. I had three children, John Richard Bridgeman, Sharon Elizabeth Bridgeman, and Margaret Anne Bridgeman. I went to Englewood Elementary School, North Kansas City High School, University of MIssouri at Columbia, and I got a masterís degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia. I was an elementary school teacher. I taught for 31 years before I retired from teaching. I taught mostly fifth and sixth grade. I have always been a Democrat.

I grew up during the Depression, and there wasnít a lot of money around, so we did most things at home. It was pretty well understood that girls would grow up and get married and have children, of course. A woman had the choice of being a teacher or being a nurse or a secretary. Those were the three main things. I liked to read a lot, and both my parents were teachers, so I think they kind of steered me all along that I would be a teacher.

I grew up in a small community. The kids would play outside after school and on Saturdays. We played a lot of softball; a game we called Scrub. Not having enough kids for two teams, it was kind of a ďworkupĒ game. The big kids got to bat the longest, and the little kids ended up playing in the field, because you had to work your way up to bat. But the little kids ended up being much better baseball players. (My parents) were active, and took part in elections. My mother stayed home when we were little, and later went to work outside the home when we were teenagers, when we were older. But, mostly, women did stay home. World War II came along, and all of a sudden, many jobs opened up, and many women went to work that hadnít before.

There were two girls in our family, my sister and I. And, my dad would always say ďMy girls can do anything anybody else can do,Ē that sort of thing. So we would hear that sort of thing. The first time that it kind of struck me that it wasnít fair, when I was in high school, only single women were allowed to teach. As soon as you were married, you were fired. It seemed strange that men teachers could be married, but women teachers had to be single. And this was true in several jobs, for example, a stewardess. As soon as anyone got married, you were fired. The first time the North Kansas City School district, where I taught, allowed married women to teach was when I graduated from college in 1953. And many of the teachers had gotten married over the summer before it started. Women were paid less. A man teacher doing the very same grade and the very same job would make $200 a month more than the woman on her contract.

Gloria Steinem was, of course, one that we all looked up to. Betty Friedan was another. She wrote a book which - I can remember sitting home thinking ďOh, my Iíve got to go back to teaching, Iíve got to get out of here and go back and start back working again!Ē (Why did you idolize them? What significance did they have for you and for all women?) They [Steinem and Friedan] were brave, and they spoke up, and they said things we hadnít thought about before. It sounded like a very good idea. It was kind of fun; there was a cameraderie among all of the many movements going on at the same time. The Vietnam war came along, and people were opposed to the war and wanting peace in the world. People began to notice that things werenít fair and werenít equal for all people. These sorts of things just grew over the years, all the way down to the present time.

(Did teachers, just as an example, have equal rights?)The teachers! As I said, they werenít permitted to get married, and if you were one of the teachers, you were not supposed to take part in the school board election. You were to be quiet about who you wanted to win in the school board race. Later, along came the NEA (National Education Association,) and teachers all came together and got very active in politics. It was considered a very brave and daring thing to do. We couldnít wear slacks. We had to wear dresses to teach in. One of the really brave teachers - it doesnít sound very brave now - but, two teachers actually came to school wearing jeans, and they were sent home! The following day, every single teacher in the district wore jeans to school. We were scared to death! We were almost trembling. But, we walked in, and nobody said anything, and they changed the rule. It doesnít sound like a very daring thing to do. Maybe sometimes you want to wear something thatís different from what your friends are wearing, and you think ďIím going to get in trouble?Ē But, we braved up and did it. (I can see why that would have been very daring of you.) It was very scary. It doesnít sound like a scary thing now. (Because women had no freedom?) We had freedom of a certain kind, and for certain things.

As I say, I went to the University of Missouri in 1949. Freshmen women stayed at a house that was just for women students. We had a curfew; we had to be inside the house at 7:30 on weeknights, and we could stay out until 10:30 on Friday and Saturday. We had definite curfews. When you were an upperclassman, you could stay out until 10:00.

NOTE: After the interview, Ms. Bridgeman also explained to me that while women had curfews every night, boys never had curfew any day of the week.

College was mixed - probably five to one men to women. I was the first member of my family to graduate from college. My parents taught, but just had a couple of years, as you could get a teaching certificate without a degree. I was president of a group called the Independent Womenís Association, or IWO. We had meetings once a week and got together to talk about women on campus, and things they could do.

Blacks were not allowed to attend the University of Missouri. When I was an undergraduate, the first (black) students came - I guess I was about a senior - and there were two girls and two boys who came to the University, and we had meetings, and everyone was to be good and quiet, like, this was a really big thing. When I went back to get my Master's, of course, it had opened up, and people began to attend, in class. But it was not too many... There was one who I sat next to, and we talked, and we decided it was really very strange that women could come to the University from India and China and every country on Earth, but right here, our own citizens that lived in the date of Missouri, were not allowed to go to the University of Missouri and had to go to a seperate school in Jefferson City that was for blacks. But a very wonderful Norris Stevenson came to the University and played on our football team, and he was one of the best players that we had had, and all of the sudden he was the campus hero, and people stopped thinking about it, and just sort of accepted it.

I joined [the National Organization for Women] whenever it started, sometime back [in the 1960s]. I was one of the first women in Kansas City to join NOW. It was just a group of women meeting together to talk, and over how laws that were not fair needed to be changed, and how we could go to Jefferson City to talk to lawmakers, and see about getting things changed, write letters and campaign for the ERA (the Equal Rights Amendment), went to marches and sang lots of songs. [There were] not many [black people], it was mostly white. But see, I lived north of the river, and that was the section of Kansas City that had been segregated. Yes, [men were involved]. It was the National Organization for Women, not of, and yes, we had men members. Remember, it was men who gave us the right to vote, we had to talk men into voting for that, and many men supported the National Organization for Women and wanted equal rights, and many of the legislatures. Some of our greatest champions were men, politicians, many who were men, and many who were women, working together.

Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, and Ellie Smeal [held leadership of NOW]. They were wonderful. I enjoyed [being a member of NOW]; it was fun, it was liberating, in way kind of like going to a football game. Thereís a whole lot of people meeting together who had the same ideas and the same thoughts, and they carried signs and had slogans and buttons, and so forth and so on. We saw war in the world, and we wanted to change it to peace. We thought ďIf all we need to do is walk down the street so people can see this and hear it and think about it, theyíll all want to change.Ē

There were groups of women who would talk about their troubles at home, and troubles at work and school, and who could help with one another; kind of networking, helpin geach other up and pointing out laws that were going to come to the Legislature and what we could do to help get them passed.

[The Equal Rights Amendment was the primary reason I joined the National Organization for Women,] I suppose. When the kids were little, I wanted to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britannica. The salesman came, and I was teaching school and I had my own paycheck, and when I signed up to pay for the encyclopedias, he said that my husband would have to sign it, that I, as a women, could not sign the contract without my husbandís permission. I said, ďYou mean, I have my own money here, and I canít pay for this book for my children? I have to get the permission of my husband?Ē Only a husband can sign a legal contract, and it just blew my mind that I wasnít equal and I couldnít do certain things. There were all sorts of laws where women were considered to be the property of your father and then you were married, and you became the property of your husband and you had to have their permission on legal documents, and so on.

There were lots of movements [that supported equality], such as Civil Rights, and there were the Kennedys, John and Robert Kennedy and Ted Kennedy, and they were leaders in there, and NEA (I was a member of NEA), the teachers groups that supported these same liberal causes, and Cesar Chavez, and there were boycotts that we supported and they supported us, and it became wider and wider. It became kind of a large movement, for peace, for equality, for workerís rights, for womenís rights, for Hispanics, and later gay rights were added.

[There was a really big change in womenís sports]. When I was in high school, there were no womenís teams or womenís sports, only the boys had sports. We had intermurals, but there were no uniforms, and we didnít get to play people from other schools and back and forth. We could play each other, like a gym class, and womenís basketball, we werenít allowed to dribble the ball, you could only play half the court because they thought women were too weak to be able to take the ball all the way up and down the court. Watching womenís basketball today, youíd be very surprised at the difference in the way things were (and how they are today). But, they got Title 9, opening up the right that girls should have the same rights as boys in school to learn and take parts in sports. It was a marvelous change. All scholarships went to boys to go to college because they had athletics and girls didnít receive those at that time. Of course, the athlete that comes most to mind is Billie Jean King. Billie Jean King was a tennis player, and a male tennis player named Bobby Riggs came out and said ďI can beat any woman anywhere, women canít play! Their team is just amateur stuff!Ē There was the big contest where they played and she won, and it was so exciting and we wanted her to win so bad, to beat that Bobby Riggs. Before that, women werenít even paid for the tennis. They would have menís tennis and womenís tennis, and only the men got money for it. That opened up to having equal prize money for the men and the women players, and all of sports opened up. Before, you could change the rules so women couldnít play.

Weíd thought that the fact that there was a deadline [for the Equal Rights Amendment to get passed] was unequal, also. There was never a deadline put on the amendments when the Constitution was written. If you got the votes, it passed. We came very, very close to passing it, and I think it was about to go through, and then - it was a woman - who threw the roadblock up that stopped us from getting it through, Phyllis Schafly. She was very formidable, a very good debater and talker, and boy, she threw out scare tactics everywhere, like ďIf the Equal Rights Amendment was passed, woman would be drafted and sent to the army and have to use the same restrooms...Ē Well, that was silly, but nevertheless, it didnít pass, and we were very sad.

[During the 7-year deadline for the ERA to get ratified], Gloria Steinem started a magazine, Miz Magazine, we wrote articles, we lobbied for laws to get passed to make things equal, we talked to our senators and representatives, we marched in parades, carried banners and tried to look like the suffregettes long ago (they had worn white and marched for votes for women). I took your mother and your aunt Sharon and the girls to Chicago. There were 90,000 women who marched in white, carrying banners for the ERA, we helped and we were going to put it over, but we didnít quite make it. However, it changed anyway, the laws changed. It became, like, bit by bit, piece by piece, until things were very different.

[We felt] depressed [when the amendment wasnít ratified], we just decided to take it bit by bit, piece by piece, and you know the song ďLike a tree standing by the river, we will not be moved?Ē It didnít change much, we just went our different ways and kept working at it, down till today. Things go forward and back. [When the deadline was extended,] we knew that we had to keep working, had to keep trying, had to keep going, couldnít give up.

We had supporters in both political parties, and we had opponents in both political parties. Usually, the presidents that were in office were afraid to take a position on it, that they would lose votes somewhere. Usually, the wives of presidents always came out in favor of it.

[During the ratification deadline,] we (NOW) met, and we talked. We knew not to give up, because when it came to votes for women, that was proposed, until it was finally passed, it was something like 72 years, you know, and they didnít quit, they kept going. Itís like slavery, you know, it takes a long time sometimes, and even at the end of the civil war, people didnít have equal rights over racial issues and so on, but you donít give up, you just keep working. You get down today, itís not all done. My mother and grandmother started it, and I worked on it, and your mother worked on it, and now itís your turn.f

[Aside from NOW], I was a member of NEA, the National Education Association. Its purpose was to work on rights for teachers, and for students in public schools, every student in the United States, to improve schooling and education. We were pretty liberal in our outlook. As I say, NEA always supported Civil Rights, farmworkers, we supported all others. We joined in with many things, Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta.

[When the second ERA deadline passed], we knew it would just take longer. NOW dwindled after that, the numbers went down, there werenít any more marches and there werenít as many meetings, the magazine got smaller. But in the same way, even though those things went down, all of the sudden women did not have to be a teacher, or a nurse or a secretary. You could be a doctor, you could be a lawyer. When I started at college, the University of Missouri, a roommate, a friend, had straight A average, and she could not get into veterinary medicine, to be a vet. Her father was a vet, and she would have been excellent at it. But boys who had just a B average were admitted. You couldnít get in med school, you couldnít get into law school. But now, today, even after we didnít get the amendment, the land changed. Women could do anything now, if you are smart enough and if you are good enough. You can get in, and you can become a student in it. You canít be Pope. There are still-segregated places, there are still places where women donít have rights, but itís a lot better. And you can play basketball and soccer, and you can get a scholarship to school on soccer, or basketball.

[Life for women] is much, much, much better than when I was a child. It has far more opportunities. There is also more pressure on some things. Maybe it was easy to not have to make a decision on whether you want to go become a doctor or not, you knew you werenít, so you didnít have to worry about them.

Women arenít commonly seen today working in the Church. Well, there are nuns, of course, and priests... Where women are not seen? Like, an airline pilot. I think that if a woman is willing to do it, if she puts in the time, I think itís pretty open.

When I was married, my husband took my paycheck, and I could write enough for the groceries and so forth. But I didnít have my own checkbook or my own account, and then that changed, and I had to learn to pay bills, and balance the books. There were a lot of things I just let him do that I later learned to take part in, and itís a good thing I did, because now I have to do it.

I think that eventually the equal rights will come, whether they decide to put it as an amendment, but in some way, maybe a court decree, or something, I donít know. I hope it passes. It just would be nice to be included in the constitution and recognized as a citizen, free and equal.