…he told her that there were just some things in life that she could not change. Aghast, Alice resolved to spend her life advocating for societal reform.
Alice Cohan, a leading feminist from Ewing, New Jersey, has been a force to be reckoned with since the third grade. When her teacher was replaced with an inept substitute, Alice organized her classmates to demand that the principal hire a qualified teacher instead, even carrying a sign to his office. However, he told her that there were just some things in life that she could not change. Aghast, Alice resolved to spend her life advocating for societal reform.
She was molded by the tumultuous times she lived in, shaped by racism against Black people and discontent with the Vietnam War. Her first encounter with racism was in high school while she was running a 4-H club, where she taught cooking skills to preschool students in Trenton. Once, a boy hit his hand on the counter and started bleeding. At the hospital, he was forced to wait for admittance because he was Black, even though a white boy who had entered after him was admitted immediately. When his mother arrived, she took him to a public hospital, where he promptly received care. This terrible experience instilled in Alice the idea that fighting for one social issue means fighting for all of them.
During her time at American University and Rider University studying political science, Alice became involved in the peace movement. She believed in the nonviolent ideals of Mahatma Gandhi and became trained as an organizer. Her most memorable experience was the day before May Day in 1971, when thousands of people, camping on the Ellipse in Washington, D.C., were told to leave because they did not have a permit. There was one group of women who chanted, “The women of the world are picking up the guns,” a sentiment that pained Alice greatly. As part of the liaison team between police and the anti-war demonstration, Alice picked up her bullhorn in an attempt to negotiate with them. However, police mistakenly thought she was an organizer, too and arrested her with the other women. In jail, Alice felt overwhelmed, locked up with the violent protesters. Eventually she asked to be moved to another jail cell that contained Quakers. This cemented her belief that the feminist movement had to be nonviolent.
Alice became involved in feminism when her friend invited her to join the National Women’s Political Caucus, which was convened in 1971. Older women formed a caucus to put forth two candidates for election to the Steering Committee. To win against these candidates, the Prime of Life Feminists caucus, which was made up of women in their 30’s and 40’s, and Alice, who herself had formed a caucus for college-age feminists, made a deal to support each other’s candidates. At the conference, a woman dressed in a blue polyester suit warned Alice that the Prime of Life Feminists caucus would go back on their promise. Seeing that the woman was in her thirties and therefore too old to join the youth caucus, Alice did not heed her advice.
However, as the stranger had predicted, Alice was not elected. That woman turned out to be Eleanor Smeal, who went on to serve three terms as President of NOW and is current President of Feminist Majority Foundation and later Alice’s mentor.
Through Smeal, Alice became involved with NOW, becoming a field organizer for the Equal Rights Amendment. She made her way across America, speaking with legislators and holding rallies to convince states to ratify the amendment. Her proudest accomplishment was directing the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, which protested abortion restrictions and garnered over a million participants.
Alice has never ceased her tireless work in advancing the feminist movement, working as an advisor to the NOW Political Action Committee and as Political Director of the Feminist Majority. She is amazed at how much the women’s movement has grown throughout her lifetime but notes that, in some ways, it has become a much harder, uphill struggle to accomplish its goals because the low-hanging fruit (i.e. voting) have been picked. Alice’s advice for young feminists today is to never stop pushing but to have fun while doing so. The connections that you make through this movement will support and uplift you for life.
Annabelle is a high school senior from Moorestown, NJ, where she started a chapter of the youth-run non-profit Period., Inc. in December 2018. In between AP classes and stressing on college applications, Annabelle applies her chemistry skills to creating the perfect steamed bun.
Alice Cohan, political director for the Feminist Majority, has been a feminist activist since age 19. She has been with the Feminist Majority since 1995. Cohan is the former political director and field director of the National Organization for Women (NOW). She was the director of all feminist mass mobilizations and marches since the ERA Campaign, including the 2004 March for Women’s Lives that brought over 1 million supporters to Washington, D.C. with the work of over 1,400 co-sponsoring organizations. As March Director, Alice braved countless storms, juggled egos and priorities, and pulled off the March of a lifetime. She has worked on many political campaigns for feminist candidates, ballot initiatives, and worked with many coalitions.