Lillian Ciarrochi: Feminist Hero

SUNDAY, APRIL 17, 2016

By Karen Bojar

Lillian

On April 13 we lost Lillian Ciarrochi, a passionate feminist and founding member of the Philadelphia chapter of the National Organization for Women. I met Lillian when doing research for Feminism in Philadelphia: The Glory Years, 1968-1982, a book which could not have been written without her. I spent many happy, productive hours with Lillian recording her recollections of the early days of Philadelphia NOW.

Lillian, like many NOW members, made enormous personal sacrifices in the epic struggle for the ERA in the final years before the June 30, 1982 deadline for ratification. In August 1981, she left a well-paying corporate job to work full time for the ERA in Florida, working 15-hour work days, seven days a week. Lillian recalled:

I was with Scott Paper Company and I was assistant Controller in the largest division. And the vice-president I reported to [had an] office right next to mine. When I told him, he sat there and cried like a baby and he said, ‘you were on your way to the sixth floor, how can you give up your career?’ I was on the fourth floor, and the sixth floor was when you reached the top.

In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer conducted immediately after the defeat of the ERA, the reporter asked Lillian why she would “make a decision that even now she remembers as ‘very, very painful?’ Why do something that would cause her to forfeit her pension rights and that would threaten her future financial security?”

Lillian’s response was that “the strongest motivation was my mother’s life.” her mother was an Italian immigrant who came to consummate a prearranged marriage: “She came on sort of a cattle boat with 500 other young women. All were being pulled away from their families…she became instantly pregnant.” Lillian was the eighth of 13 children in all. She remembers her mother as a brilliant woman who always regretted that she never had the opportunity to get an education. When Lillian told her mother she was joining NOW, her mother started to cry, embraced her and said, “I think that’s important, and do whatever you can to make women’s lives better.” Her mother died June 17, 1980. Lillian said her final decision to “change her life” for the ERA was made on the first anniversary of her mother’s death: “I really wanted to do it as a memorial to my mother.”

Throughout the 1970’s Lillian worked tirelessly to advance the feminist movement in Philadelphia and became treasurer of Philadelphia NOW in 1973. She played a key role in many of the struggles for women’s rights in the 1970’s, including the NOW campaign against sexist images in the media and the battle to integrate the Union League and the Police Department. Lillian became President of Philadelphia NOW in 1979 and rebuilt the organization after a difficult period in which it almost dissolved—largely a result of volunteer burnout.

In the early years, Philadelphia NOW had been reluctant to get directly involved in electoral politics. Lillian led the organization into the political arena. She recalled her experience at the 1976 Democratic Convention as the beginning of her political education: “After I came back I started pulling the chapter more into politics… It became so apparent that we had to get women elected, get women into power.” She was a passionate supporter of Hillary Clinton’s, and it is tragic that she did not live long enough to see her dream of a woman president realized.

The feminist movement in general and NOW in particular scored an astonishing number of victories both nationally and locally in the early and middle 1970’s. Sometimes the victories were swift and decisive, like the desegregation of Help Wanted ads, while at other times they were long and protracted, like the struggle to integrate the police department andE

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