Veteran Feminists of America

Elizabeth Shepard


NOVEMBER 2009 Feminist of the Month

Elizabeth Shepard with husband, John.

I’ve lived two lives, says Betty Shepard, today of Naples, Florida. When the feminist movement began I was living in the suburbs of New York, caring for my husband and children and involved in community affairs. I never thought of myself as deprived in any way -- until 1970, when, as a lark, I took part in the march for Equality on Fifth Avenue in New York and was awakened to the inequities and discrimination towards the female sex.

To start at the beginning: I was born in Beloit, Wisconsin October 7, 1918, the only child of Hungarian immigrants. My parents, Louis and Elizabeth Vigh, named me Elizabeth Louise for both of them. I was supposed to be a boy, but they loved me, and I knew it.

At age seven, the day we moved to Elkart, Indiana, I explored my new neighborhood and found a tennis tournament being held for local children. Someone asked “Do you play ?” I didn’t, but I would like to. I wasn’t wearing sneakers, so was told to remove my shoes and a tennis racket was put into my hand . “All you have to do is hit the ball over the net and keep going,” someone said. I won the match from a little boy, and I was hooked. From then on much of my youth was spent playing tennis. I met my future husband John Shepard on the courts at the University of Wisconsin where I entered college in 1936.

My dad didn’t know why women wanted to go to college, but I had to go, though I hadn’t the foggiest idea of what to study. My father had ulcers, so I chose a career in dietetics to find out why. But when I graduated his ulcers had healed.

I met John Shepard, again in New York City, where he was studying at Cornell Medical College and I was in the first class Cornell held for therapeutic dieticians. My first job was at Carle Memorial Hospital in Urbana, Ill. I returned to New York and married John in 1942. I worked as a therapeutic dietician at the Payne Whitney Psychiatric Clinic and later, at the Good Housekeeping Magazine Bureau as a chemist. This was during World War II, and John was soon conscripted . Now, with a salary, we could afford the baby I so wanted. When my son was born I worried that I couldn’t possibly love another child as much. But as soon as I saw my daughter, who was born in 1947, I knew I could. I learned then that love is never limited, but extends to take in all those that we can.

After the war we moved to Manhasset, Long Island, where John entered private practice. Now I was a suburban housewife. Volunteering became a big part of my life. I was president of the PTA and active in local politics. I liked being a mother. I think I said no to my children 3 times -- once to my son when he wanted a motorcycle, to my daughter when she wanted a horse, and no to any fighting before breakfast. And I said no to myself when I was asked to run for NY State Congress. How could I have two teenagers at home and a husband who rarely was.

I never thought of myself as deprived in any way until August, 1970 when a friend called to tell me that NOW, the National Org for Women was going to have a march down 5th Avenue for equal rights. “Let’s go” she said. “Oh Maggie, I said.... we’ve just been thru the Civil Rights and the Peace movement, and now this movement of kooky women? I’m not sure I want to go.” “What else do you have to do?,” she asked. But the time of the march was 5 o’clock. “That's the time I prepare dinner, I said. I’ll check with John.” “Oh John won’t care”, she replied. And of course he didn’t.

A few hours later I was marching on 5th Avenue with thousands of women I had never seen before, many who were older than I, some nicely dressed, and some I would have liked to neaten up a bit. The sidewalks were filled with on - lookers. People were pouring out of offices staring at us. “Betty Shepard , what on earth are you doing here?” I thought.

As I marched so many emotions were pouring over me. I couldn’t sort them out. The march ended at the Public Library Park where we heard speeches by Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Flo Kennedy and many others . The word I kept hearing was equality, equality, equality… and I thought, “I don’t feel unequal in any way.” Then I heard that the march was on August 26 , 1970 because it was the 50th anniversary of suffrage, the amendment that finally gave women the right to vote . “ My goodness, I thought. In 1920 I was two years old and my mother couldn’t vote!”

We were given a flyer which stated the reasons for the march. The first was educational opportunities, the second was equal pay for equal work, the third was childcare. I had trouble with this one, as I felt strongly that women should take care of their children. The fourth was reproductive rights -- all reasonable demands. These were definitely not kooky women! I decided I ‘d better look up this NOW.

The next week I joined the Nassau County chapter. The members, mostly housewives, were so smart. I paid dues, but there were scholarships for those who couldn’t afford to. You had to be active at least on one committee. I looked at the numerous committees and thought, I need to learn about consciousness raising. And I’ve done lots of public speaking, so I should be on the speaker’s bureau. There was one called female sexuality. What did that mean? Then there was a media committee. I joined them all.

Thus began 15 years of almost around the clock work for women’s rights -- speaking, lobbying, organizing, doing surveys. I spoke at churches, women’s groups, men’s clubs…I especially enjoyed speaking to high school kids. In the school’s hallways I’d hear. “We’re going to hear a women’s libber.” And when I faced the students I could see the disappointment in some. “Hum, you were expecting a young woman in a T- shirt and jeans and no bra”, I’d say, not an old grey haired woman. Then I’d begin my spiel. The kids were intrigued. After the lecture many, mostly boys, would stay to talk to me. I remember one boy saying, “I know what you’re talking about.” “Oh, is your mother a feminist?” I asked ? “ No, he said, but my father left us and my mother had to go to work, and she gets so mad because men doing the same work are getting a lot more money.” “Your mother is a feminist,” I told him.

Then there was lobbying in Albany and in DC. Once in DC in the corridor of the capitol I bumped into a group of teen age boys add - from Catholic High Schools. “Are you here to study legislation ? ”I asked them. “No, they said, to lobby against abortion.” Suddenly I was steaming, but I made myself cool it. “Do you have sisters?” I asked. Most said yes.“ Do you love them?” “Yes.” “Supposing your sister is gang raped and becomes pregnant and she doesn’t want to have a child by a rapist. Would you want her to go thru that?” Well, they’d never thought of this. “And furthermore, it could happen to your mother as well" I said. I left them looking puzzled, but thinking.

One day I ran into one of my senators in the hall at the capitol. I stopped him and, in a rather controversial way, I have to admit, I asked …” How are you going to vote on the abortion legislation? Are you going to vote as your constituents want you to, or your religion ? He would vote his conscience, he said, and he turned and walked away from me. Before I knew it my hand had caught his shirt tails , and I was demanding of him….” I want an answer! “ I was so enraged that I didn’t hear his answer. I learned then that anger is not only blind, but deaf, and realized that if I was to be persuasive I had to control my anger.

She was born handicapped. She was born female
In 1971 word came that Midge Kovaks of New York City NOW’s Image Committee was organizing a national campaign aimed at the sexist media. The idea was to stop the portrayal of girls and women as silly, immature nincompoops. We were given a record about sexism in the media, along with several wonderful posters, which I later learned were made by Anne Tolstoy Wallach of the J. Walter Thompson Ad Agency. One poster of a sweet toddler, a little girl who looked perfect in every way, really got to me. The caption said, “This healthy, normal baby has a handicap. She was born female.” This was incredibly heartbreaking. I had to spread this around. I called the local radio station, got an appointment to see the director. We talked about the rampant sexism in the media. “Would you NOW women like to do a public broadcast?, he wanted to know. “ Do I hear you correctly? I asked in disbelief. I’ll ask our board.”

But the board had no idea what to do. A month later they hadn’t come up with anything, so I realized I would have to do it. I decided I’d create a program rather than give a lecture, so I took a crash course in Communications at Hofstra U, then developed the program. Called SPEAKING NOW I presented it on local radio for five years. My husband was retiring and we were moving to Florida, so I turned it over to the chapter. It ran for another 19 years, and then I lost track.

The Nassau Country Medical Auxiliary, to which I, as the wife of a physician, belonged, asked me to speak to them about SPEAKING NOW. I would rather do a program about doctor’s wives -- about you, I said.. and suggested they let me interview them. They agreed.

It was a real eye opener for all of them. One doctor’s wife was a doctor herself, but most were, like me, more or less happy housewives. The program broke all attendance records for the Auxiliary. Now they asked me to do another on female sexuality. That one blew their minds and they insisted their husbands needed to hear this. Soon I received a call from the president of the medical society asking me to give the lecture I’d given his wife. I said yes, but the women wanted the same lecture I’d given them for their husbands. How was I going to do that? And there was no way I could adapt it. I told my husband he didn’t have to attend, but he insisted, so I had not only to talk to husbands of my friend’s about female sexuality, but to my own husband.

It was the last and most important meeting of the month. Standing before this prestigious group I told them that I was nervous, but as I looked at that sea of male doctors (and about 4 female doctors) I realized that in this case I was the professional. I began by saying that I was exceeding my own comfort level and if I exceeded their’s , to feel free to leave. Then I began to explain that female sexuality meant everything about women -- how they wore their hair, how they walked and particular how they talked. And I spoke of those body parts that we had no terminology for. I told them that I’d asked women how they referred to those secret parts and got more than 26 astounding names. Most women called them simply “my privates’, or “down there,” But the ones I found most interesting were “tinkalinkee” and, can you believe, “Christmas.” The breasts were most synonymous with food items, everything from walnuts to water melons. “No one has ever talks about the clitoris, I told them: the organ that provides orgasm for women.” I went on to explain different ways women can come to orgasm. After the lecture a doctor stood up and said he’d come only because it was the last meeting , and he couldn’t believe all he’d learned. There was a wonderful round of applause. No one had walked out.

For many years John and I attended golf tournaments in Pine Needles, N.C. By now I’m known as “that women’s libber.” Once a man came in and addressed John, ”God damn, all we hear today is women’s lib" .. then he said approvingly, “That’s some kind of a wife you have.” My husband replied, "Yes,she’ll nail you to the cross every time with her truth.” So I lived the feminist movement with a feminist husband.

As I was beginning to understand this new anger within me I was no longer the Betty my husband and friends knew. But as I liberated myself, my husband, too was liberated. Its just a happy and exciting place to be .

I enjoyed both my lives -- that as a housewife/mother and that of a social revolutionary. The early feminist movement was a time of constant, intense work with many set backs and frustrations, but we accomplished so much, and, looking back I see that, in spite of the negatives, it was probably the most joyful and fun revolution of all time and I was fortunate to be a part of it.


Elizabeth Shepard received the VFA medal of honor in 2002 at a VFA event held with West Palm Beach NOW and Florida Atlantic University. She and her husband have lived in Naples, Florida since 1985. Dr. John Shepard was a noted neurosurgeon. Their son, Dr John Shepard Jr, is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic in MN. Daughter, Judy is a speech therapist in California.

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