FREEMAN (1945 - ) by
in Significant Contemporary American Feminists: A Biographical Sourcebook,
ed. by Jennifer Scanlon, Westport, CN., Greenwood Press, 1999, pp. 104-110.
FREEMAN, Jo (August 26, 1945 - ), activist, political scientist,
writer and lawyer, was born in Atlanta, Georgia and raised in Los Angeles,
California. Her mother, Helen Mitchell Freeman, hailed from Marion Co.,
Alabama, where both of her parents had occasionally served as local
elected officials. She moved to California shortly after Jo's birth
and taught Junior High School until her death in 1973.
Freeman attended Birmingham Jr. and Sr. High in the San Fernando Valley
and graduated from Granada Hills High School in 1961. She felt her four
years at the University of California at Berkeley, where she received
her B.A. with honors in Political Science in 1965, were her "personal
liberation" from the narrow constraints imposed on girls during
her childhood. At Berkeley she could live on her own and make her own
One of those decisions was to become deeply involved in the student
political groups and larger social movements that were prevalent at
Berkeley in the 1960s. She was active in the Young Democrats and SLATE,
a campus political party, lobbying to remove the campus ban on controversial
speakers and to promote educational reform, writing for the SLATE Supplement,
which evaluated teachers and courses from a student perspective, and
working in local "fair housing" campaigns. In 1963-64, Freeman
immersed herself in the Bay Area Civil Rights Movement, organizing and
participating in demonstrations demanding that local employers hire
more African-Americans. She was arrested in two of those and spent six
weeks on trial, garnering one acquittal and one conviction. The trials
interfered with her plans to go to Mississippi for Freedom Summer, but
ended in time for her to hitchhike to the Democratic Convention in Atlantic
City to join the vigil of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party.
On her return, the student political groups were informed that they
could no longer pass out literature on the edge of campus, at the traditional
locale for political activity that was forbidden on the campus itself.
This rule change prompted the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, whose massive
sit-ins and student strikes shook the political establishment in California,
led to the dismissal of the University President, opened the entire
campus to political activity by student groups, and became a beacon
for student protests all over the country for years to come. Freeman
was involved in the FSM for its entire existence, but often as a critic
of the radicals in the leadership. Nonetheless, she was one of "the
800" arrested for occupying the administration building, and was
tried and convicted with the other students.
experiences profoundly affected her future scholarship. She found that
she liked to merge thought with action, to critically analyze what she
and the others were doing, and to do what her studies taught her was
the right thing to do. She wrote her senior thesis on "Civil Disobedience"
and years later drew on her experiences to publish several contributions
to the literature on social movements. Reading about the abolitionist
movement convinced her that the next major movement would be one of
women, but when she told this to others, they only scoffed. Freeman
did not enter graduate school until 1968 because she thought it was
more important to do social change than social science. Instead she
worked in the civil rights movement, participated in anti-war protests,
and was one of the founders of the women's liberation movement.
After graduation she went to Atlanta to work for the Southern Christian
Leadership Conference (SCLC), headed by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Beginning as a summer volunteer, she soon joined the SCLC field staff
and for a year and a half worked in various southern counties, doing
voter registration, political education and community organizing. Most
of her activity was in Alabama, though she also worked in South Carolina,
Mississippi and Chicago, and spent a few days in two Southern jails.
Her work in the South ended when the Jackson Daily News, at the
urging of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission, "exposed"
her as a professional agitator, implying from her FSM activities that
she was a Communist sympathizer. The five photographs which accompanied
the editorial made her an easy target, so after a few weeks in Atlanta
working as an assistant to Coretta Scott King, SCLC sent her to Chicago.
Freeman credits the civil rights movement for the insights which made
her a nascent feminist. Its demands for "equal rights" and
objections to "separate but equal" provided the analytical
framework from which to critique society's assumptions about women's
natural inferiority to do anything except serve men and raise children.
In addition, the black community provided an alternative model for woman
that compared favorably to the limited roles women had in white society;
one in which strength was admired and leadership by women was more accepted.
From these observations Freeman realized that there was nothing natural,
or inevitable, about woman's place, nor was there anything wrong with
those women who refused to confine their interests to home and family.
After SCLC's Chicago project petered out Freeman worked for the West
Side TORCH, a quasi-movement and community newspaper, where she developed
her photographic and journalistic skills. However, when she applied
for a job to the traditional newspapers and reporting services in Chicago,
she was told that they hired very few women because "girls couldn't
cover riots." This forced her to confront the limited employment
options women had regardless of talent, training or personal interests.
Eventually she found a position as a rewrite editor for a trade magazine,
where she learned to edit and revise manuscripts for publication. This
experience led her to edit five editions of Women: A Feminist Perspective
(Mayfield, 1975, 1979, 1984, 1989, 1995). It quickly became a leading
introductory textbook for women's studies courses because Freeman's
editing gave the contributed chapters a consistent style which combined
readability with incisive analysis of available data.
It was while trying to become a journalist that Freeman met the women
with whom she would organize Chicago's first women's liberation group.
Early in 1967 she read about the formation of NOW (the National Organization
for Women) but no one answered her letters. In June she went to a course
on women at a free school at the University of Chicago taught by Heather
Booth and Naomi Weisstein. The women she met there would eventually
become the nucleus of the first group. However, the immediate stimulus
was the women's workshop that met at the National Conference of New
Politics, held in Chicago over Labor Day weekend. Between 50 and 100
women spent days talking about women's situation and writing a resolution,
but the chairman of the plenary denied them an opportunity to discuss
it. Freeman and Shulamith Firestone, whom she met at the workshop, left
in anger and called together the women Freeman had spoken with three
months earlier. They met weekly at Freeman's apartment on the West side
of Chicago, from whence came its name, first talking and then writing
letters, articles and pamphlets. The women in the Westside group organized
other discussion groups around Chicago and spread the word to women
in other cities who founded still more. By the time the Westside group
dissolved in the Spring (when Freeman closed her apartment and left
Chicago for two months), small groups of women were mushrooming everywhere.
The Westside group also started the first newsletter, the Voice of
the women's liberation movement, and by so doing gave the movement
its name. Freeman knew from working in the South that a newsletter created
a sense that something important was happening. She edited the early
issues, maintained the mailing list, mailed out pamphlets and corresponded
with emerging feminists from all over the country. Her work on the newsletter
and role as an information hub continued into 1969, by which time she
was enrolled in graduate school in political science at the University
of Chicago. Vwlm ended with issue No. 7 in the Spring of 1969.
Freeman turned to other endeavors, helping to start a woman's center
in 1968, chairing the Student SubCommittee of the Committee on University
Women (created to report on women's experiences at the University after
a major sit-in in the winter of 1969), teaching an unpaid, non-credit
course at UC on the legal and economic position of women, organizing
a major conference in the fall of 1969, organizing the University Women's
Association to bring feminist speakers to campus, and, beginning in
1970 speaking and organizing at other campuses, mostly in the mid-west.
In the summers of 1970 and 1971 Freeman hitchhiked throughout Europe
distributing feminist pamphlets wherever she could find women organizing.
Women in the Netherlands and Norway later credited her with making a
contribution to the development of their movements. As a graduate student,
she wrote term papers on women and on feminism, most of which were published.
In 1972 she ran for Delegate to the Democratic Convention committed
to Presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm. As a result she attended
the 1972 Convention as an Alternate with the Chicago Challenge that
unseated Mayor Daley's machine delegation.
The excitement of starting a new movement was tempered by the usual
rivalries, jealousies, manipulation and undermining that are typical
of social change organizations. Freeman sought to understand and analyze
these in three papers she wrote under her movement name, Joreen. "The
BITCH Manifesto" (1969), "The Tyranny of Structurelessness"
(1970), and "Trashing: The Dark Side of Sisterhood" (1975)
became minor classics that were frequently reprinted because they illuminated
others' experiences in many movements. "Tyranny", the best
known of all her work, argued that there was no such thing as a structureless
group; pretending there was allowed responsibility to be shirked and
power to be hidden. In fact, every group had a structure, usually based
on friendship networks, and in the absence of formal democracy, these
networks would make the important decisions.
Freeman wrote many articles on women and women's liberation for popular
magazines, scholarly journals and anthologies, changing her style to
fit the audience. Her most comprehensive work on the movement was her
1973 dissertation, The Politics of Women's Liberation: A Case Study
of an Emerging Social Movement and its Relation to the Policy Process,
which was published in 1975 (McKay, then Longman). Later that year it
won a $1,000 prize given by the American Political Science Association
(to commemorate International Women's Year) for the Best Scholarly Work
on Women and Politics. It identified two origins of the women's movement,
one in the larger "Movement" of civil rights, youth and anti-war
activists, and another in the network created by the President's and
State Commissions on Women. From these came two branches, with different
styles, structure and orientations. The "younger branch" worked
through small, autonomous "rap" groups, creating numerous
projects and publications. It was the source of most of the movement's
ideas. The "older branch" formed national organizations such
as NOW and WEAL, which lobbied, mounted major demonstrations, and translated
feminist ideas into laws and regulations. Freeman analyzed the actions
and limitations of each branch, emphasizing how both impacted on and
were shaped by public policy.
In addition to her pieces on the women's liberation movement, Freeman
also published contributions to social movement theory, critiques of
how law and public policy treated women, and analyses of women's experiences
in higher education. Her articles continue to be reprinted in numerous
textbooks. Her only other book was an edited collection on Social
Movements of the Sixties and Seventies (Longman 1983).
Freeman finally found NOW, when she met Mary Eastwood on a trip to Washington,
D.C. in 1968. She then helped Catherine Conroy start the Chicago chapter
of NOW, worked on various committees and participated in NOW demonstrations.
She shifted her membership to New York City NOW in 1974, and was also
an active member of the Washington, D.C. chapter in 1977-79. She chaired
the NYC-NOW Committee on International Women's Year, helping co-ordinate
NOW activities at the New York State preparatory meeting, where she
was elected a delegate to the national IWY conference that met in Houston
in November, 1977. In 1974-77, Freeman was an active member of the Women's
Martial Arts Union, which gave self-defense demonstrations and classes
for women in the NYC area.
In 1976, Freeman went to both the Democratic and Republican Conventions
as a reporter for Ms. magazine. This started a continuing project
of covering women's and feminist activities at both major party conventions
every four years, usually for the feminist journal off our backs.
This research finds its way into her more scholarly analyses of political
parties and also led her to write a history of women and party politics
(forthcoming). Hoping once again to merge thought and action, Freeman
continued to work in practical politics, unsuccessfully running for
Delegate to the Democratic Convention in 1976, 1980, 1984 and 1988,
and for the New York State Assembly in 1992.
After receiving her Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of
Chicago in 1973, Freeman taught for four years at the State University
of New York and spent two years in Washington, D.C., first as a Brookings
Fellow and then as an APSA Congressional Fellow. This stimulated her
interest in public policy and led her to enter New York University Law
School as a Root-Tilden Scholar. She received her J.D. in 1982 and was
admitted to the New York State Bar in 1983. Freeman currently is in
private practice in New York City where she has served as counsel to
pro-choice demonstrators and to women running for elected office. She
dabbles in local politics, writes and lectures.
Copyright (c) 1999 by Jennifer Scanlon