It's late in the morning of June 25, and the grassroots feminist organization Women For: Orange County (OC) is holding its monthly meeting inside the Irvine Water District's Duck Club. The documentary Koch Brothers Exposed: 2014 Edition—an incendiary film implicating the moneyed brothers in everything from school re-segregation to voter suppression—has just finished playing.
Furious chatter erupts among the crowd of predominantly older women. "We've seen these films," one woman interrupts. "We know about the Koch brothers. What are we going to do about it? Why haven't the Koch brothers been sued in a major way?"
The group is silent. One woman offers, "I always drop a note in Costco's suggestion box, telling them to stop buying Georgia Pacific paper because the Koch brothers own it."
Women For: OC's Suffrage Day Luncheon at the Hacienda, 1725 N. College Ave., Santa Ana; womenfororangecounty.org. Aug. 24. Champagne buffet, noon; program, 12:30 p.m. $40; reservations can be mailed to WomenFor: OC, P.O. Box 5402, Irvine, CA 92616.
Another chimes in: "I don't know where this came from, but why don't we call them the cock brothers?"
Another woman suggests the campaign slogan "Choke the Koch."
A group of mostly retired women advocating for a liberal fantasy in a conservative county, Women For: OC is easy to parody. But while jokes about cock brothers and notes in Costco suggestion boxes may seem trifling, these women are bulwarks of the left, and their resolve is steely.
Women For was founded in Los Angeles in the 1960s, a byproduct of second-wave feminism's preoccupation with reproductive rights, female sexuality and workplace inequality. "Women For: LA had such a reputation that when something would happen, the newspaper reporters thought they would have a comment on it," board member Marilyn Vassos recalls.
Vassos, a longtime member of Women For: OC and a legendary local activist, found solace among the women of the Los Angeles branch, deeming them her "sages." Growing up with rigid expectations of femininity, Vassos felt confined. "Most of my life, I was silent," she explains. "When I grew up, women got married. It was abnormal that I wasn't married when I finished college."
Vassos broke her silence as she aged. The former sixth-grade teacher has been arrested several times for civil disobedience. In one incident in the 1990s, she and her husband were arrested for protesting at a teacher's rally. With the help of the ACLU, they sued the Los Angeles Police Department for infringing on their right to peacefully assemble.
The isolation of being a feminist in a conservative world also inspired Judy Curry to join the organization. Her warm but firm manners betray a childhood in the midcentury Midwest, where, she says, "there is a Lutheran church on every corner." A UC Irvine alumna, Curry worked in law enforcement, a place where right-wing ideology dominated. "I was a square peg in a round profession," the board president jokes.
According to Vassos, the Los Angeles branch died out with the loss of older board members. The organization's Orange County counterpart was founded in the '80s by Vivian Hall, an activist who ran for Congress in 1976, and writer Lynn Osen. Women For: OC today champions virtually every progressive cause, all pigeonholed under the banners of human and civil rights, peace and justice, education, health care, and the environment. The women insist, however, they are nonpartisan.
A sampling of their involvement is akin to a laundry list of lefty agitation: advocating for LGBT issues in Orange County and statewide; protesting fracking in the county; donating new undergarments to Indian reservations and cosmetics to female prisoners; working with post-incarceration support organization Homeboy Industries; and, this year, partnering with Stop Hunger Now, a meal-packaging program for malnourished communities.
The most recent cause to capture the organization's attention is the Supreme Court's decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, in which closely held corporations were granted the right to deny specific contraceptive coverage to employees on religious grounds. The board drew a connection between the Supreme Court decision and Orange County's own religious-reproductive standoff in the merger of Hoag Hospital and St. Joseph Health System, which effectively banned abortions at the hospital due to St. Joseph's sensitivity to the procedure.
"This is not Mississippi," Curry says, sharply pronouncing each word. "This is Orange County, California. You cannot pull this crap here. . . . You have the right to do with your body what you want. How dare the men in dresses tell the women . . ."
Board member Felicity Figueroa cuts in: "Well, if it were truly men in dresses, we'd have a much easier time." The women laugh at her subversive, anti-Supreme Court one-liner.
Figueroa is in charge of the Great American Write-In, one of the organization's two large annual events. "The write-in is . . . there for people to write letters to their congressmen, their legislators and their decision-makers on all of the issues brought up by the 50-plus organizations that have tables there," Figueroa explains. This year, more than 300 Write-In attendees generated 2,000 pieces of mail. (All postage and stationery was paid for by Women For: OC.)
The Suffrage Day Luncheon, dubbed "the oldest feminist event in Orange County," honors community members who champion the organization's values. It's held annually on a weekend as close to Aug. 26, the day the 19th Amendment was passed, as possible and is attended by more than 100 people.
Women For is historically grounded in feminism, but board members vigorously debate whether that holds true for the organization today. When asked how feminism informs their liberal agenda, Vassos responds, "Women are taking the leadership and presenting [these issues]. I don't know of any men's groups in the county like this."
Figueroa points out that you don't have to declare it a men's group, as it's already the dominant form.
When one board member mentions that feminism is an unpopular term in today's world and that the organization has branched out, Curry interjects, "But I'm so proud to be a feminist, and I don't want anyone to take that from me," tapping her Rosie the Riveter name tag against her chest.
"Feminism is all these issues," Figueroa adds. "Feminism and humanism should be the same thing."
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Despite the lack of consensus on feminism, the ladies insist that disagreement among this board and its members is rare, though that hasn't always been the case. "I used to come home from meetings and tell my husband, 'Give me two hours. I have to have two hours of complete silence because they were almost throwing things at each other,'" Vassos recalls of previous board makeups. "I went into one board meeting and said, 'I can solve this. I taught peaceful negotiations to sixth graders. We are going to sit around this table, get it all out, and no personalities.' Within five minutes, they were screaming and yelling at each other."
The relative calm now may have something to do with a particular practice of theirs. "Every three weeks, we have stitch and bitch, where we do just as the title says," one board member explains.
"I try to knit," adds Curry. "But I seem to only be able to bitch."