Why the King Made Me a Feminist

For a young girl growing up in an oil-industry town, Elvis Presley represented everything the women around her couldn't be. A clash over the King with her teacher set the stage for a life dedicated fighting for what she believed in.

Carol Tracy

To mark Women's History Month, Women's Enews asked a handful-from a pages-long list-of leaders of the second wave of the U.S. women's movement that swept the nation three decades ago to look back on their work and answer three questions: In 1972, what were they fighting for? What did they accomplish? And what remains to be done? Five remarkable women responded. Today, Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia, reflects on how her first jobs as a secretary informed her work later on as an attorney advocating on behalf of women.

PHILADELPHIA (WOMENSENEWS)-My activist life probably began in sixth grade, when I was thrown out of my Roman Catholic school classroom because I refused to accept Sister Marie's criticism of Elvis.

This was in Chester, Penn., an oil-industry town said to be the most polluted in the United States. The people who lived there worked hard and lived according to a strict set of social rules that did not include asking questions of those in charge. In fact, the only job I saw that women could there hold was secretary, and that was what I aspired to, even though I noticed that as they walked past me on their way to work that the nylon stockings they wore rotted off their legs.

Elvis was sexy and broke the rules-a white man singing the music created by blacks and swiveling his hips suggestively to teen-age girls while he did it. I loved him and the spirit he embodied and that got me into trouble at school and fired from secretarial jobs-experiences that got me into my life's work. By 1972 I had already been dismissed from two secretarial jobs and was a full-time student at the University of Pennsylvania. In one job I was fired for telling the boss that a secretary's job involved more than getting him coffee. In another, I was met with hatred and ridicule for joining a memorial march the day after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. At Penn, I learned that the “university community” protesting the war in Vietnam did not include the support staff.

And I also learned I had power-if I joined with others in a concerted effort to insist on change.

From Secretary to Union Organizer to Attorney

As a secretary at Penn, I became the president of a powerful coalition of women faculty, administrators, students and clerical workers to advance affirmative action; I filed a complaint that equalized the salaries of cleaning women; organized student support for underpaid cafeteria workers; and led a successful campaign for a woman who had been denied tenure.

In my union organizing, I learned about labeling when an official in the personnel department wrongly assumed I was a lesbian. Since I was not, I was worried that I would never get a date again, but more importantly, I felt insulted. I poured my heart out to a lesbian friend and mentor, expecting her to understand the “insult.” Instead she informed me that “they could say worse things about you,” profoundly affecting my view of the situation.

I eventually switched roles and became a full-time student at the University of Pennsylvania, gravitating towards women's studies, where I found an intellectual framework that supported my personal belief system.

In April 1973, I put all I had learned to work in an historic sit-in: Two students had been gang-raped, and the director of public safety made a statement to the effect that women should not wear provocative clothing. We occupied a campus building for four days and received national publicity for the rare student sit-in for women's rights.

We tasted victory: The public safety department hired a female security specialist trained to assist victims of sexual assault, escort services for students, a bus line, self-defense classes, additional lighting and the creation of a women's center.

These experiences were deeply personal, extremely profound, and very political; they made me a feminist. I learned about the status of women, the marginality of classes of women, the depth of racism and homophobia. I learned about misogyny, the place of women in history, our economic and legal status. I learned that while self-interest fuels activism, it alone cannot bring about social change. I learned that for women, self-actualization and social change are inextricably related. Inclusiveness and collaboration are crucial elements of a feminist social-change agenda.

Police Cover-ups of Rape Remain a Challenge

I have had the extraordinary opportunity to have a career as a feminist. Since 1976, I have been the director of the Bicentennial Women's Center, director of the Penn Women's Center at the University of Pennsylvania, director of the Mayor's Commission for Women in Philadelphia, director of the Women's Law Project, and I have sat on numerous boards and committees of other women-serving organizations. My work is simultaneously satisfying and frustrating.

As director of the Women's Law Project, I have played a role in many major legal victories with national impact in the areas of reproductive rights, athletics and welfare. I have led the project in efforts that have increased child support for low-income families, secured insurance coverage for battered women, fought for the rights for lesbian and gay parents and achieved effective enforcement of clinic protection laws.

The gains for women in the United States that I have both personally experienced and been part of bringing about have been unparalleled in world history. Title VII and Title IX have changed the landscape of opportunity for women in employment and education. Roe v. Wade honored the privacy and autonomy of women's bodies. Domestic and sexual violence are acknowledged as crimes, and not attributes of male property rights over women.

But the glass ceiling exists, pink-collar jobs still abound, and educational and employment opportunities are vastly different for white women and women of color. Abortion rights hang in the balance, with a serious diminution since 1973's Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, particularly for poor and vulnerable women. Too many women continue to be impoverished. Child-care and rearing remain the principal domain of women. Violence against women is epidemic. Racism and homophobia are pervasive.

There is still much work to be done. During the past two years, the Philadelphia Inquirer has uncovered a major scandal in which the Philadelphia Police Department classified thousands of sex crimes in non-criminal categories, which ended the investigations and made Philadelphia's crime statistics look good. Allegations of rape by women of color in particular were highly likely to be ignored. As soon as the story was reported, I called immediately for hearings in the City Council and organized women's and children's advocates to meet with Police Commissioner John Timoney. As a result of these efforts, the police agreed to reinvestigate cases over the past five years (the period of the statute of limitations) and agreed to let the advocates review coding practices, protocol and training. In an unprecedented move, Timoney invited me and the other advocates to actually review case files.

Nearly 30 years after the Penn sit-in, I am still working to change law enforcement's approach to rape. I am in my mid 50s and I spend each day trying to make the world a safe place for women, using the law and the power of organization.

And I remain optimistic. I have found through teaching undergraduates and supervising many young feminists that the experiences of today's young women, while different from mine, are no less personal, profound, or political and fortunately are guided by a significant body of feminist research and writing. The struggle for equality for women is complex, challenging and controversial, but I absolutely believe it is achievable.

Carol Tracy is executive director of the Women's Law Project in Philadelphia.

For more information:

Women's Law Project:

Also see Women's Enews, February 19, 2001:
Women Activists Monitor Philadelphia Rape Squad: