The 70s and 80s were a time of incredible transition and I feel very lucky that I was there to see it; on the other hand wish I hadn’t had to be on the forefront of it.
IN HER OWN WORDS
I was born in New York and my family moved thirteen times before we finally settled during my fifth grade. I went to Phillips Exeter Academy my junior and senior year. I was at Exeter in the first five years that they allowed female students. There were very few women faculty and sometimes I would be the only girl in a class. And they would ask me: “Why don’t you give us the women’s perspective?” As if at age 16, I could speak for all women. Or an alumni would come and say something along the lines of “I hope my education still means something that there are girls here now.”
What brought you into politics and organizing?
My experience at Exeter brought me to wanting to organize around women’s issues and then it was seeing women’s voices not being heard in the nuclear movement that made me look for a different place to be an activist. And that’s how I found NOW. I was only seventeen when I joined in 1977. I remember waiting every month for the paper newsletter to come from the National office because it was like I have to read every word of it. I marched for the ERA in New Hampshire and was very interested in abortion rights. My criminal law class at Catholic University of America taught us that abortion was a criminal offense even though it was legal all over the US at that point. There were a lot of sexist undertones that had to do with the Catholic doctrine at the school. I really didn’t understand what that would be like until I went there. At the end of my first year in law school, I found out that I was in the top 10% of my class. One of the deans, a priest, saw me right after I found out and and said “I hate it when women are in the top 10%. You’re just gonna get married and have babies and take the top 10% jobs away from us.” I was just like “Seriously? Are you telling me that it’s bad that I’m in the top 10%?” The 70s and 80s were a time of incredible transition and I feel very lucky that I was there to see it and on the other hand wish I hadn’t had to be on the forefront of it.
After that, I moved to a rural part of New Hampshire to work in the public defender program. There were two male attorneys and a woman secretary who told me on my first day: “Don’t expect me to like you. I told them not to hire a girl.” It was a really tough first year – the male attorneys basically wouldn’t speak to me, the judges were condescending and the prosecutors called me “honey.” I stayed for eight years and by the time I left I was the managing attorney in the office and had hired other women attorneys.
I helped found a chapter in the region because I needed to have a women-centered space. I had a baby and everyone assumed I wouldn’t come back to work. I stayed home for eight weeks and then came back. (*smiling*) I kept hitting walls in society that became my inspiration to stay involved in the women’s movement. NOW was much more cutting-edge then and I tend to be pretty radical. I liked NOW because it wasn’t focused on a single issue and from the early days, they saw racism as a feminist issue. Most of the women shelters that exist and have existed for a long time were started by NOW members. They were on the forefront of making political change in very concrete ways.
Was there an area you wanted to work in?
I wanted to focus my practice on helping low-income people. Lawyers can make change two ways: by representing individual people, which I did as a public defender, or by impact litigation, which involve cases that may make a bad law unconstitutional or will in some way affect a wide range of people. I did that later in my career, both at the Southern Poverty Law Center where I worked on a juvenile justice project as the Executive Director and then as Legal Director at the American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi.
I left New Hampshire in 1991 and moved to New Jersey and became much more active in NOW. I became chapter president, then Action Vice President for NOW under Myra Terry and then State President for NOW in New Jersey. I was very lucky to be a full time president and be able to devote all of my time into that. That was the most amazing job I’ve ever had.
Have you worked on any big cases related to women’s issues?
When I was at Planned Parenthood, New Jersey had passed a parental notification law, a law saying that minors had to notify their parents before they could get an abortion which we didn’t support. So I worked on the case that went to the New Jersey Supreme Court and overturned that law. I worked on a lot of legislation while I was at NOW in New Jersey.
During Bill Clinton’s time in office, they passed really bad welfare bills that were draconian and very bad for women. They passed a law that said if you were already on welfare and you had another child, your welfare benefits wouldn’t go up to cover that child. It was an interesting case, we brought it with a right to life group because their argument was that knowing that women wouldn’t get additional benefits, it would incentivize women to have abortions. So we joined forces and it was very bizarre when we would all have to be in the same room. We would all sit as far away from each other as we could. (*said Bear laughing*)
Can you recall your proudest moment or achievement with NOW?
NOW has been a huge part of my life. NOW was very involved and I was very involved as a NOW person in getting marriage equality passed in New Jersey for lesbian and gay people. I left right after that but I think that was probably my biggest, my proudest moment—NOW’s involvement in that.
You asked me what issues I’m currently focused on. And there’s really two –one of them is a more internal NOW issue and its that I think NOW really needs to increase its diversity in membership and leadership. And externally I’ve been really involved in transgender issues the last five or six years and brought some cases while at the ACLU.
What advice do you have for the next generation of activists?
I am going to give push back when you say you don’t always see the deep-rooted sexism around you. You need to notice the discrimination that is happening around you. Not that much has changed. Girls are still told not to go into science and engineering. At Exeter my older sister was two years ahead of me (so she was one of the first classes of girls) and taking this really advanced physics class. She was getting a C and the professor kept telling her to drop his class. At her 25th reunion she was talking about it with her male peers and found out that she had the highest grade in the class!
My advice to young girls is to be willing to try new things, to be bold. Don’t wait for anybody to hand you power. That isn’t to say don’t respect and listen to older feminists who have experience, but don’t wait for them to pass the torch, jump up there and take charge.
NOW really had a profound impact on me because I learned a lot of the life skills that stood me well in my career. It’s where my friends come from; most of my friends are NOW activists so it’s just it’s been a huge part of my life. (*She smiled as she recalled her life*)
Editor’s Note: Bear Atwood’s NOW story continues… Last month she became Vice President of the National Organization for Women. Congratulations Bear! We are proud to have one of our own in this National office!
Zhamilya is a first year at Wellesley College. She got involved in menstrual equity advocacy while in high school and is interested in using data science to understand global problems like the refugee crisis. She enjoys reading and art when she is not taking on challenges like fighting against the use of machine learning in facial recognition algorithms.
Bear Atwood is Vice President of National Organization for Women. Prior to becoming Vice President, she was a civil rights lawyer in Jackson, Mississippi specializing in representing LGBT clients. She is the former Legal Director for the ACLU of Mississippi and was the Executive Director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s youth justice project. Prior to moving to Mississippi, Bear was a Deputy Attorney General in New Jersey working for the State’s Division on Civil Rights. She has also worked for Planned Parenthood of Central New Jersey. Bear is the current President of Mississippi NOW and a former President of NOW-NJ. She was a member of the NOW National Board and has served on the PAC.