Volume 79, Number 33 | January 20 - 26, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


When women’s power blossomed in Greenwich Village

By Ed Gold

Ted Sorenson, Jack Kennedy’s famous speechwriter and counsel, must have really been surprised back in the mid-’60s when New York Democrats decided, in effect, that a woman couldn’t beat a man in an election.

Sorenson had been asked by the state Democratic organization to strengthen the party, which had suffered several election losses earlier in that decade.

He asked the group, which included feminists from the West Side and elsewhere, whether they would eliminate sexual references in the selection of district leaders. The idea was to select a single district leader in every district.

Led by the women on the committee, the idea was rejected. The women argued that it would be difficult for a woman to beat a man in an election!

But in Greenwich Village, the women’s- lib movement and women’s status in general had emerged as important factors in community and political activities.

On the political side in the ’60s and ’70s, the reform Village Independent Democrats had a great advantage in providing women with equal status, in sharp contrast to the Tamawa Club, the base of power for the great Tammany leader Carmine DeSapio.

Tamawa was strictly a men’s club, as former Councilwoman Carol Greitzer, an outspoken feminist, recalls. She and her husband, Herman, “met with Tamawa representatives and they asked Herman to join Tamawa and acted as if I wasn’t there,” Greitzer noted. Greitzer would become V.I.D.’s first female president.

Tamawa had a female district leader in Elsie Gleason Matura, who served the coffee at Tamawa meetings, which were strictly social gatherings. Once she was asked on TV whether she ever disagreed with DeSapio. “Heaven forfend I should ever disagree with Carmine,” was her reply.

On community issues, women in the Village conspicuously took the lead. Margot Gayle, for one, led the fight to stop vehicular traffic through Washington Square Park. Jane Jacobs, the urban specialist, transcended a particular neighborhood and became a world figure; but she did save low-cost housing in the West Village, and gave N.Y.U. President Hester fits after the university had built the box-like Bobst Library just below Washington Square Park.

During the ’60s and into the next two decades, a group of women emerged at Community Board 2 who were dubbed the “grande dames.” Four stood out in this writer’s memory: Ruth Wittenberg, Edith Lyons, Verna Small and Lenore Zola. They appeared to share several qualities: They were all very independent and confident, not afraid to challenge important institutions; they were upper middle class, highly educated and well-bred even when angry.

Wittenberg held landmarks sacred, even taking issue before the Landmarks Preservation Commission to oppose a C.B. 2 resolution. Lyons fought against commercialism on Village streets, even against Our Lady of Pompei Church. Verna Small upset realtors who wanted to build a residential wall along the Hudson River in the West Village. Zola, head of the board’s Social Service Committee, was the enemy of NIMBY (“not in my backyard”) as she tried to help addictive people in rehab programs.

Occasionally, the feminists ran into anachronisms they couldn’t tolerate. At a hearing before Zola’s Social Service Committee, an administrator at the Salvation Army’s Merkel Residence on 13th St. talked about middle-aged residents as “my girls,” which drew sharp and unrelenting response from the more-militant feminists on the committee.

Another women’s issue emerged, in part, because of the activities of Bella Abzug, regarded by many as leader of the feminist movement.

The issue involved Rita Conyers, the public relations director at St. Vincent’s Hospital. A former nun, Conyers removed the habit, hurting her status with the Sisters of Charity, who ran the hospital during that period. Conyers granted the use of meeting rooms to community groups, and one such group invited Abzug as guest speaker.

Abzug spoke about abortion rights and chided the hospital for not making referrals for women seeking information on abortion. Word got around that the sisters were not too charitable about Conyers for inadvertently providing Abzug with a platform, and were thinking of firing her. She was well liked by C.B. 2 members, who supported her in a resolution. She kept her job.

On occasion, the women’s movement could be fierce. During the war in Vietnam, a member of C.B. 2 offered a resolution calling on the board to oppose the national defense budget. I was sitting next to Charlie Persell, later to become one of C.B. 2’s best chairpersons. We both thought the defense budget, as in issue, was too far out of the district, so we abstained. The woman who made the resolution arose and said angrily, “Wouldn’t you know it would be two men who supported the war!”

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