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Exploring the Women’s Movement with Carol Alma McPhee

Then & Now

By Judy Salamacha

During the 1960s, when the “Women’s Movement” was in full swing nationally, Carol Alma McPhee (Norton) felt left out.

“I was a dependent, middle-class housewife and mother, with limited experience,” she said. Her family lived on the campus of what would become California State Polytechnic University, since her father was the University President.

She had access and an interest in books that her high school peers were not always reading. She attended Stanford and Cal Berkeley with aspirations to become a writer, until a professor in the Berkeley English Department told her women were not welcome.

“Most young women today don’t realize what we went through,” McPhee said. “In the ‘60s, women were expected to marry and raise children. We could be teachers, nurses or secretaries.”

She taught at Atascadero High School for a year, then married and quit teaching, thinking that in between housekeeping and child rearing, she would write.

Instead she consumed information about the National Organization for Women  or NOW, and efforts to support the Equal Rights Amendment. She recalls wishing that she could participate in the 1970 “Women’s Rights for Equality Day” being held in cities across the nation, but not in San Luis Obispo.

McPhee would not publish for years. Only after she experienced multiple personal roadblocks, typical for most women, did she find friends that shared her passion to advocate more opportunities for women.

McPhee will recount her journey, now documented in her new book, “A Small Town Women’s Movement: A Memoir,” from 2:30-4:30 p.m. Sunday, June 11, at Coalesce Bookstore Chapel, 845 main St., Morro Bay.

In the book’s introduction, she wrote, “I joined in as if it were a religious calling…I did all I could personally and politically to bring other women to feminism.”

She also religiously documented the quest to establish the local Commission on the Status of Women. In June 1976, McPhee and her fellow collaborators, including local journalists, Ann FitzGerald and Mary Gail Black, and with support from AAUW and Quota International Club of Morro Bay, convinced County Supervisors to establish the commission, which is still going strong today.

Linna Thomas, Coalesce Book Store owner and publisher of McPhee’s memoir, explained why she felt it was important McPhee told her story.

“I’ve known Carol since 1973 when she arrived with a group of women — Ms. Independent Feminists — to help ready Coalesce for our opening. Janet Brown, who was my business partner from 1973-1978, and I had gone to a meeting of the group in SLO pleading for their help. They responded with a vengeance!

“They sewed curtains, laid down carpet — whatever we needed. I have always admired Carol for her intelligence, trustworthiness, talent and serving spirit.

“The second reason — there is a sad shortage of local women’s history. This is the only book I know of that talks about the local women’s movement as it was unfolding in the early to mid-70’s.”

Times were different back then, she explained. “It’s hard to remember how different things were for women back in those days,” Thomas said. “They did not hold many offices, exert much in the way of political power, have many high-powered executive jobs, and many were not highly educated.

“They were busy raising families, running households, spending time with each other at church, in small clubs, among friends.”

She continued, “Through Carol’s story we get a real and specific peek behind the scenes of a significant development for women in our county. We meet the individual players that were involved. The process touched and changed many lives and was empowering for women who were stepping out onto the local and political scene. Their combined efforts were ultimately successful and the Commission exists to this day.”

McPhee has surpassed her original career goal of becoming a published author with both her latest memoir, plus “Feminist Quotations,” an earlier book co-written with Ann FitzGerald; “The Non-Violent Militant: Selected Writings of Teresa Billington-Greig;” and a novel, “Staying Under.” Her current writing passion is poetry published in “Where the Palm Rests.”

Does McPhee still consider herself a feminist? Without hesitation, she advocates for feminism in any way she can.

“Time was women were identified with the men they married — the ‘doctor’s wife’ or ‘shopkeeper’s wife.’”

She’s proud to have paved the way for her three daughters and granddaughters. Noelle Norton was chairwoman of the SLO Commission on the Status of Women in 1983-84, before assuming the duties of Dean of Arts & Sciences at the University of San Diego (USD).

At 21, Beth Norton, a marine biologist for the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, was the first woman to monitor fishing catches on Korean and Japanese fishing vessels. And daughter No. 3, Claire Norton, owns her own business as a speech therapist.

Yes, women have come a long way, but… “We’ve crashed through the steel ceiling,” McPhee said, “but have not yet penetrated the glass ceiling.”

Freelance writer, columnist and author of “Colonel Baker’s Field: An American Pioneer Story,” Judy Salamacha’s Then & Now column is a regular feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media. Contact her at: judysalamacha@gmail.com or (805) 801-1422 with story ideas.

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