Why is she a feminist? “It’s personal,” she writes, in her history of the women’s movement.


Mary Riche good mugshot in 2023.jpg

JEFFERSON, Iowa, July 1, 2023 — The Greene County Historical Society here has just completed a two-year series of museum programs and exhibits on the history of the 1950s, ’60, and ’70s.  My husband Chuck Offenburger was the moderator on Sunday afternoon, June 25, as a group of panelists discussed the social movements of those three decades.  Each of the panelists covered one of these very significant movements — civil rights, peace, women, farm, conservative and environment. Following are the prepared remarks I used in my presentation on the women’s movement.

I’m a feminist and a passionate advocate for women’s rights and equality between genders.  Today, I’m speaking from my personal experiences as a heterosexual white woman of privilege.

I was born in November, 1947, to “Mr. and Mrs. Frank Riche” and given my name of Mary Mae Riche. My nameless mother, according to the birth announcement in the local paper, earned a teaching degree from Upper Iowa University at age 18, got a teaching job she loved before she added her M.R.S. degree at age 22 in 1939, when she married my dad, a farmer.  Verda Watson Riche proudly identified as Mrs. Frank Riche, “Frank’s wife,” and “the mother of Mary and Bette,” my younger sister, born in May, 1950.   Mother taught school after marriage, then became a partner with my dad on the farm, even after she added her additional role as mother.

Women and men in the 1950s and ’60s were stereotyped into roles that were reinforced by centuries-old English common laws and social customs.  Men, as the “breadwinners,” were expected to marry and work to support their wives, and women were expected to marry, have children, and devote themselves to maintaining a home and being the primary caretaker of the children.

Mary presenting at the museum.jpg

Mary Riche presenting, with the other panelists that discussed the social movements of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s in a program for the Greene County Historical Society in Jefferson.

The individual legal rights of women were minimal, even after gaining the right to vote in 1920.  The media, through advertisements and programming, depicted women as happy homemakers, mothers and wives, ready with a drink for Father when he arrived home from his workday at the office.

When educated women worked outside the home in the 1950s and the ’60s, they were often teachers, nurses or secretaries – honorable jobs though they maintained that stereotype that women were most suited for work that supported others.

These stereotypes are captured in the current and wildly popular premier novel by Bonnie Garmus in her book “Lessons in Chemistry.”  Apple Studios is releasing it as a film this month, and the storyline is fiction; however, I believe it accurately portrays what happened to many women during that time, personally and professionally.  I highly recommend it. I am woman, hear me roar.  In numbers too big to ignore.  And I know too much to go back and pretend.

There have been many advances in the status of women during the three decades being spotlighted in today’s program.  Two stand out as most significant to me; one in 1960 and the other in 1972.  Neither has been without controversy.  Yes, I am wise and it’s wisdom borne of pain.  Yes, I’ve paid a price and look how much I’ve gained.

The first centered around family planning and a woman’s right to have her own method for contraception.  Condoms for men had been legal in this country starting in 1918, and more than 40 years later, in 1960, the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) approved Enovid, the first oral contraceptive for women.  “The Pill,” as it became known, opened the door to a new level of freedom for women as they made decisions about sex and when to have children.

The second advance was the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that stated,  “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United Sates or by any state on account of sex.”  It was first introduced to Congress in 1923 and passed 49 years later, in 1972.  It would have been a wide-sweeping change that expedited the slower step-by-step process of changing individual laws, one law at a time, that sought to end discrimination and distinctions between genders in matters of divorce, property, employment and other legal issues.  Iowa ratified the ERA in 1972, though Iowans defeated it during two general elections in 1980 and 1998.

Let me add context for both of those advances.

 Before the 1950s, the typical American woman bore, on average, seven children, and contraception was considered obscene under the 1873 Comstock laws.  A powerful New Yorker Anthony Comstock, who headed a “Society for the Suppression of Vice,” proposed a set of “chastity” laws, as they were known.  They reflected his belief that the availability of contraceptives promoted lust and lewdness, so he drafted an anti-obscenity bill and Congress passed it.

Margaret Sanger coined the new term “birth control” in 1914 and made it her mission to remove the Comstock Act.  Sanger’s lifetime crusade began when she was a nurse in New York City in the tenements in the Lower East Side.  She saw firsthand how poor women were dying in childbirth after their yearly pregnancies.  That work, combined with her own personal experience as one of eleven children who helplessly watched her mother die at the age of 50, after the strain of 18 pregnancies with 11 childbirths and seven miscarriages, changed her focus to finding better contraceptives for women.

The first successful change came in 1916 after Sanger’s arrest for opening the first birth control clinic in America.  Her arrest led to the 1918 Crane decision, which allowed women to use birth control for therapeutic purposes.

She was relentless.  In 1921, she founded the American Birth Control League, the precursor to the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.  In 1936, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals made it possible for doctors to distribute contraceptives across state lines.  Sanger worked behind the scenes to bring this matter before the court.

Finally, in 1951, Margaret Sanger, then in her 70s, met Gregory Pincus, a medical expert in human reproduction and research at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Massachusetts.  One of Sanger’s closest collaborators was suffragette Katharine McCormick, heiress to the International Harvester fortune and the second woman to graduate from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a degree in biology.  After Sanger took McCormick to see Pincus in his research lab, McCormick used her inheritance to fund the research that led to the first oral contraceptive for women.

After the FDA approved “The Pill,” more than 1.2 million American women were using it as birth control in less than two years.  By 1965, one in three married women in the U.S were using it as a safe, effective method of family planning.

Finally, in 1965, the Comstock Law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court with the landmark decision that eliminated the prohibition of contraceptives by a married couple.

There was more awareness to the changing roles and responsibilities of women in the home when Betty Friedan’s book “The Feminine Mystique” became a huge best seller in 1963.  Her book set the stage for the modern feminist movement and for legal reforms that made the decade of the 1970s so significant for women.

By the time the preview issue of Ms. Magazine was published in 1971, and Helen Reddy released her hit song “I am Woman” in 1972, a national “women’s movement” began to wage a battle against sexism, seeking to achieve full gender equality in law and in practice.

Mary Riche with Ol 82 at fair in 1959.jpg

Young Mary Riche in an early feminist moment in her life — when her heifer “Ol’ 82” won the “Best in Open Class” competition in the cattle contest for 4H boys at the Buchanan County Fair in Independence, Iowa, in 1959

Here’s how job interviews with women were routinely conducted in the 1970s.The interviewee was a young 22-year-old college graduate; the interviewer a man and a company executive.  He was “all business,” as he began the interview:  “Your college grades and activities are impressive.  You have solid reference letters.  Before we discuss your reasons for wanting to work here, I need to know when you expect to have children?”

The young woman applicant replied, with both a quiver and firmness in her voice.

“Sir,” she said, “you are wrongly assuming that the amount of time an employee works here is more important than the contributions being made.  What if I came up with a fantastic idea in the first year that saves the company money and brings attention to this division.  Does that make me less valuable because I’ve only worked here a short time?  And I don’t know when I’m having children.”

After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, the young woman was offered the job.

That young woman was me, and I accepted the offer.

In 1972, my bank told me I could not get a car loan without the signature of my then-husband, in his second year attending law school as a full-time student.  Even though I pointed out the only deposits in our account came from my employment, the bank required the loan be made to him, or he had to be a co-signer with me. The bank could legally, and did legally, refuse to issue me a loan in my name only.

Two years later in 1974, the passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act allowed women to open bank accounts, apply for credit and commit to a mortgage without needing a male co-signer.

Two years later, in 1976, I purchased my first home in Des Moines as a single woman.  Without a co-signer.

In 1975, I led a federally funded project for the Iowa Commission on the Status of Women to determine if working women in Iowa were under-employed and/or under-utilized.  We surveyed employers and employees across the state, with the process being supervised by Dr. Larry Short, of Drake University, who kept the study free from bias.

The results were conclusive.  If women were given the opportunity to advance up the corporate ladder, they would apply.  If women could see other women in roles usually held by men, they would apply for those positions.  That fact-based evidence was then used in both the private and public sectors for creating strategic plans to expand their workforces.

Those personal experiences began my lifetime commitment to removing barriers to women’s equality, and why the ERA was especially appealing – because changing discriminatory laws, one law at a time, was a slow, tedious process.

I was not prepared for the campaign battle that was soon to be waged in Iowa.

In 1977, the ERA amendment was introduced in the Iowa Legislature and passed two successive General Assemblies.  It was put on the general election ballot in 1980 and again in 1992.  Iowa voters defeated it both times.

In that first campaign in 1980, early opponents campaigned against equality by using information from Phyllis Schlafly’s national “Stop ERA” efforts, suggesting wrongly that women would lose alimony or Social Security benefits based on their husband’s income.

It also included a scary and effective whisper campaign against gays and lesbians.  I know, because my newly established public relations company managed the first “Pro ERA” campaign.  I learned a lot about human behavior and whisper campaigns designed to frighten voters, a practice that has become popular in today’s political environment.

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A poster from the First National Women’s Conference that Mary Riche attended in Houston, Texas, in 1977.

At the federal level, the 92nd Congress passed more women’s rights bills than all previous legislative sessions combined, including Title IX which prohibited sex discrimination in all aspects of education programs receiving federal support.

In 1972, the U.S. Supreme Court gave unmarried women legal access to birth control, and in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court made abortion legal across the country. In 1975, women could serve on juries in all 50 states and be treated equally to male jurors, and in 1976, women were admitted into military academies.

As a popular ad at that time suggested about women, “you’ve come a long way, baby.”  To which feminists like me replied, “and we’ve got a long way to go.”

Until 1976, every state had a “marital exemption” that allowed a husband to rape his wife without fear of legal consequences.

I was working for the Democrats in the Iowa Senate when Sen. Richard Norpel, a Democrat from Bellevue, opposed legislation that would make it a crime for a husband to rape his wife.  I will never forget being in the chamber when Sen. Norpel voiced his opposition by saying, “This law is ridiculous, just like it’d be ridiculous if I bought a car and couldn’t put gas in it.”

In Iowa, it wasn’t until 1989 when legislation was passed that criminalized marital rape in Iowa.

Today the ERA is in effect, as of January 27, 2022.  Virginia became the 38th state to ratify the ERA amendment in 2020.  The original amendment language stated that the amendment shall take effect two years after the 38th state ratifies it, which was January 27, 2020.

Women have come a long way in my lifetime, as barriers to equality have been removed since the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.   However, in today’s current political environment, decisions limiting the freedom of women have re-emerged.  Once again, we have a long way to go in this battle for equality.

One of my “sheroes,” Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, said it best when she quipped: “Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did.  Except she did it in high heels and backwards.”

Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience and perspective.

You can comment on this column by using the handy form below here, or you can write directly to the columnist by email at maryriche@gmail.com.

8 thoughts on “Why is she a feminist? “It’s personal,” she writes, in her history of the women’s movement.

  1. This is a terrific summation of the life many of us have been living, Mary! Yes, there’s still so much to be done. The dance continues to be “two steps forward, one step back”!

    • City - Athens
    • State - GA
    • Hi Carol, Thanks for reading. You’re so right. The dance continues, and I’m hoping that “ladie’s choice” will have real meaning again soon. Big hugs to you and Paul, Mary

    • Amen! I did, however, find “Lessons in Chemistry” a bit trite. And some of her “facts” were wrong, I believe. Anyway a good read and it does tell it l like it was/is.

      • City - Salida
      • State - CO
      • Hi Carol. Amen Amen! Any other books you like better than “Lessons in Chemistry”? Happy weekend. Always good to hear from you. Mary

          • Have you read Demon Copperhead? West with Giraffes? I started John Updike’s newest novel, Chairlift, and just couldn’t finish it as it was quite bizarre to me.

            Your article was so well written. Care if I reprint it for my friends here?

            • City - Salida
            • State - CO
            • Hi Carol, “Demon Copperhead” was loaned to me by Artis (coincidentally, her comments to this column follow yours) and she really enjoyed it. I usually enjoy anything by Barbara Kingsolver; “Demon” has worked its way to the #4 position in my stack “to read.” The story line of “West with Giraffes” is also intriguing because I’m a big fan of historical fiction, especially women authors writing it. Couldn’t put down “Horse” once I started it. Same with “Personal Librarian” and “Lost Apothecary.” I learned lots — and fyi, all the horses running in May’s Kentucky Derby were descendants of Lexington, according to National Geographic announcement.

              No problem sharing my column; distribute it widely with others in the village of our shared experiences!

              Thank you. Mary

        • Thanks so much, Mary! This brings back a lot of memories. In about 1978, I applied for a job with the State for which I was very well-qualified. The agency director told me he wasn’t going to hire me because some of the men I would be supervising wouldn’t want “a long-legged blonde” as their boss. The job went to a less-qualified man.

          You have been a trail-blazer and a role model for Iowa women.

          Thank you for sharing your experiences and reminding us all of where we have been.

          Proud of you!

          • City - Des Moines
          • State - Iowa
          • Dear Artis, You’ll find me smiling ear-to-ear during our next Balance and Stretching exercise class… I’ll be thinking of you as the “long-legged blonde” who intimidated the director of the agency in those “good ole days.”

            I appreciate your compliments though they exaggerate my role. Only when I think about the past, as I did while writing this piece, do I realize that it’s been 5 1/2 decades — that’s 55 years — of activism.

            And here we go again!

            Thank you for your years of service on the bench, Judge. You are the true role model. Thank you for your friendship.


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