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JO FREEMAN (1945 - ) by Jennifer Scanlon

Published in Significant Contemporary American Feminists: A Biographical Sourcebook, ed. by Jennifer Scanlon, Westport, CN., Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 104-110.

(August 26, 1945 - ), activist, political scientist, writer and lawyer, was born in Atlanta, Georgia and raised in Los Angeles, California. Her mother, Helen Mitchell Freeman, hailed from Marion Co., Alabama, where both of her parents had occasionally served as local elected officials. She moved to California shortly after Jo's birth and taught Junior High School until her death in 1973.
Freeman attended Birmingham Jr. and Sr. High in the San Fernando Valley and graduated from Granada Hills High School in 1961. She felt her four years at the University of California at Berkeley, where she received her B.A. with honors in Political Science in 1965, were her "personal liberation" from the narrow constraints imposed on girls during her childhood. At Berkeley she could live on her own and make her own decisions.
One of those decisions was to become deeply involved in the student political groups and larger social movements that were prevalent at Berkeley in the 1960s. She was active in the Young Democrats and SLATE, a campus political party, lobbying to remove the campus ban on controversial speakers and to promote educational reform, writing for the SLATE Supplement, which evaluated teachers and courses from a student perspective, and working in local "fair housing" campaigns. In 1963-64, Freeman immersed herself in the Bay Area Civil Rights Movement, organizing and participating in demonstrations demanding that local employers hire more African-Americans. She was arrested in two of those and spent six weeks on trial, garnering one acquittal and one conviction. The trials interfered with her plans to go to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, but ended in time for her to hitchhike to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City to join the vigil of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. On her return, the student political groups were informed that they could no longer pass out literature on the edge of campus, at the traditional locale for political activity that was forbidden on the campus itself. This rule change prompted the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, whose massive sit-ins and student strikes shook the political establishment in California, led to the dismissal of the University President, opened the entire campus to political activity by student groups, and became a beacon for student protests all over the country for years to come. Freeman was involved in the FSM for its entire existence, but often as a critic of the radicals in the leadership. Nonetheless, she was one of "the 800" arrested for occupying the administration building, and was tried and convicted with the other students.
These experiences profoundly affected her future scholarship. She found that she liked to merge thought with action, to critically analyze what she and the others were doing, and to do what her studies taught her was the right thing to do. She wrote her senior thesis on "Civil Disobedience" and years later drew on her experiences to publish several contributions to the literature on social movements. Reading about the abolitionist movement convinced her that the next major movement would be one of women, but when she told this to others, they only scoffed. Freeman did not enter graduate school until 1968 because she thought it was more important to do social change than social science. Instead she worked in the civil rights movement, participated in anti-war protests, and was one of the founders of the women's liberation movement.
After graduation she went to Atlanta to work for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Beginning as a summer volunteer, she soon joined the SCLC field staff and for a year and a half worked in various southern counties, doing voter registration, political education and community organizing. Most of her activity was in Alabama, though she also worked in South Carolina, Mississippi and Chicago, and spent a few days in two Southern jails. Her work in the South ended when the Jackson Daily News, at the urging of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, "exposed" her as a professional agitator, implying from her FSM activities that she was a Communist sympathizer. The five photographs which accompanied the editorial made her an easy target, so after a few weeks in Atlanta working as an assistant to Coretta Scott King, SCLC sent her to Chicago.
Freeman credits the civil rights movement for the insights which made her a nascent feminist. Its demands for "equal rights" and objections to "separate but equal" provided the analytical framework from which to critique society's assumptions about women's natural inferiority to do anything except serve men and raise children. In addition, the black community provided an alternative model for woman that compared favorably to the limited roles women had in white society; one in which strength was admired and leadership by women was more accepted. From these observations Freeman realized that there was nothing natural, or inevitable, about woman's place, nor was there anything wrong with those women who refused to confine their interests to home and family.
After SCLC's Chicago project petered out Freeman worked for the West Side TORCH, a quasi-movement and community newspaper, where she developed her photographic and journalistic skills. However, when she applied for a job to the traditional newspapers and reporting services in Chicago, she was told that they hired very few women because "girls couldn't cover riots." This forced her to confront the limited employment options women had regardless of talent, training or personal interests. Eventually she found a position as a rewrite editor for a trade magazine, where she learned to edit and revise manuscripts for publication. This experience led her to edit five editions of Women: A Feminist Perspective (Mayfield, 1975, 1979, 1984, 1989, 1995). It quickly became a leading introductory textbook for women's studies courses because Freeman's editing gave the contributed chapters a consistent style which combined readability with incisive analysis of available data.
It was while trying to become a journalist that Freeman met the women with whom she would organize Chicago's first women's liberation group. Early in 1967 she read about the formation of NOW (the National Organization for Women) but no one answered her letters. In June she went to a course on women at a free school at the University of Chicago taught by Heather Booth and Naomi Weisstein. The women she met there would eventually become the nucleus of the first group. However, the immediate stimulus was the women's workshop that met at the National Conference of New Politics, held in Chicago over Labor Day weekend. Between 50 and 100 women spent days talking about women's situation and writing a resolution, but the chairman of the plenary denied them an opportunity to discuss it. Freeman and Shulamith Firestone, whom she met at the workshop, left in anger and called together the women Freeman had spoken with three months earlier. They met weekly at Freeman's apartment on the West side of Chicago, from whence came its name, first talking and then writing letters, articles and pamphlets. The women in the Westside group organized other discussion groups around Chicago and spread the word to women in other cities who founded still more. By the time the Westside group dissolved in the Spring (when Freeman closed her apartment and left Chicago for two months), small groups of women were mushrooming everywhere.
The Westside group also started the first newsletter, the Voice of the women's liberation movement, and by so doing gave the movement its name. Freeman knew from working in the South that a newsletter created a sense that something important was happening. She edited the early issues, maintained the mailing list, mailed out pamphlets and corresponded with emerging feminists from all over the country. Her work on the newsletter and role as an information hub continued into 1969, by which time she was enrolled in graduate school in political science at the University of Chicago. Vwlm ended with issue No. 7 in the Spring of 1969.
Freeman turned to other endeavors, helping to start a woman's center in 1968, chairing the Student SubCommittee of the Committee on University Women (created to report on women's experiences at the University after a major sit-in in the winter of 1969), teaching an unpaid, non-credit course at UC on the legal and economic position of women, organizing a major conference in the fall of 1969, organizing the University Women's Association to bring feminist speakers to campus, and, beginning in 1970 speaking and organizing at other campuses, mostly in the mid-west. In the summers of 1970 and 1971 Freeman hitchhiked throughout Europe distributing feminist pamphlets wherever she could find women organizing. Women in the Netherlands and Norway later credited her with making a contribution to the development of their movements. As a graduate student, she wrote term papers on women and on feminism, most of which were published. In 1972 she ran for Delegate to the Democratic Convention committed to Presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. As a result she attended the 1972 Convention as an Alternate with the Chicago Challenge that unseated Mayor Daley's machine delegation.
The excitement of starting a new movement was tempered by the usual rivalries, jealousies, manipulation and undermining that are typical of social change organizations. Freeman sought to understand and analyze these in three papers she wrote under her movement name, Joreen. "The BITCH Manifesto" (1969), "The Tyranny of Structurelessness" (1970), and "Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood" (1975) became minor classics that were frequently reprinted because they illuminated others' experiences in many movements. "Tyranny", the best known of all her work, argued that there was no such thing as a structureless group; pretending there was allowed responsibility to be shirked and power to be hidden. In fact, every group had a structure, usually based on friendship networks, and in the absence of formal democracy, these networks would make the important decisions.
Freeman wrote many articles on women and women's liberation for popular magazines, scholarly journals and anthologies, changing her style to fit the audience. Her most comprehensive work on the movement was her 1973 dissertation, The Politics of Women's Liberation: A Case Study of an Emerging Social Movement and its Relation to the Policy Process, which was published in 1975 (McKay, then Longman). Later that year it won a $1,000 prize given by the American Political Science Association (to commemorate International Women's Year) for the Best Scholarly Work on Women and Politics. It identified two origins of the women's movement, one in the larger "Movement" of civil rights, youth and anti-war activists, and another in the network created by the President's and State Commissions on Women. From these came two branches, with different styles, structure and orientations. The "younger branch" worked through small, autonomous "rap" groups, creating numerous projects and publications. It was the source of most of the movement's ideas. The "older branch" formed national organizations such as NOW and WEAL, which lobbied, mounted major demonstrations, and translated feminist ideas into laws and regulations. Freeman analyzed the actions and limitations of each branch, emphasizing how both impacted on and were shaped by public policy.
In addition to her pieces on the women's liberation movement, Freeman also published contributions to social movement theory, critiques of how law and public policy treated women, and analyses of women's experiences in higher education. Her articles continue to be reprinted in numerous textbooks. Her only other book was an edited collection on Social Movements of the Sixties and Seventies (Longman 1983).
Freeman finally found NOW, when she met Mary Eastwood on a trip to Washington, D.C. in 1968. She then helped Catherine Conroy start the Chicago chapter of NOW, worked on various committees and participated in NOW demonstrations. She shifted her membership to New York City NOW in 1974, and was also an active member of the Washington, D.C. chapter in 1977-79. She chaired the NYC-NOW Committee on International Women's Year, helping co-ordinate NOW activities at the New York State preparatory meeting, where she was elected a delegate to the national IWY conference that met in Houston in November, 1977. In 1974-77, Freeman was an active member of the Women's Martial Arts Union, which gave self-defense demonstrations and classes for women in the NYC area.
In 1976, Freeman went to both the Democratic and Republican Conventions as a reporter for Ms. magazine. This started a continuing project of covering women's and feminist activities at both major party conventions every four years, usually for the feminist journal off our backs. This research finds its way into her more scholarly analyses of political parties and also led her to write a history of women and party politics (forthcoming). Hoping once again to merge thought and action, Freeman continued to work in practical politics, unsuccessfully running for Delegate to the Democratic Convention in 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988, and for the New York State Assembly in 1992.
After receiving her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago in 1973, Freeman taught for four years at the State University of New York and spent two years in Washington, D.C., first as a Brookings Fellow and then as an APSA Congressional Fellow. This stimulated her interest in public policy and led her to enter New York University Law School as a Root-Tilden Scholar. She received her J.D. in 1982 and was admitted to the New York State Bar in 1983. Freeman currently is in private practice in New York City where she has served as counsel to pro-choice demonstrators and to women running for elected office. She dabbles in local politics, writes and lectures.

Copyright (c) 1999 by Jennifer Scanlon

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