A lifetime in the feminist movement

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From left to right: Ceballos, Betty Friedan and Jen Tully, President of NOW’s Legal Defense and Education Fund. (Sag Harbor, NY, 1996) Ceballos shared with LPM this tattered photograph. Courtesy of Jacqui Ceballos

“We all have something to do in our lifetimes,” says Jacqueline (Jacqui) Michot Ceballos of Phoenix. “I did what I was supposed to do.”

What Ceballos did was to spend almost half a century as a leader of the U.S. feminist movement. For the movement leaders – which included Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem, Kate Millet and Congresswoman Bella Abzug, among others – victory means ending sex discrimination and violence against women, and achieving reproductive choice and equal pay. 

For her dedicated service to the feminist cause, Ceballos was awarded the Kate Millet Award in June of this year in New York, surrounded by many of her fellow fighters for women’s rights. 

Now 87 years old and living in Phoenix, Ceballos says the injustices against women were so great, she was motivated to get involved in changing things. 

She recalls planning demonstrations against sexism and marching in huge crowds, becoming New York chapter president for the National Organization for Women (NOW) in 1971, and founding the national organization, Veteran Feminists of America, of which she is currently president. 

The dramatic actions she participated in were all intended to draw attention to feminist causes. In 1970, she helped Friedan organize the Strike for Equality, in which they took over the Statue of Liberty and unfurled a 40-foot banner saying “Women of the World Unite.” 

Ceballos also assisted Friedan in organizing demonstrations against the New York Times for its all-male staff and classified ads separated into “Men” and “Women.” In 1971 she participated in a debate on feminism with Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer that was later included in a film documentary. She also served as representative to the United Nations’ International Women’s Conference.

In 1975, Ceballos opened a public relations firm that promoted a feminist speakers’ bureau, and introduced the first women’s studies course, which planted the seed for future women’s studies courses at universities and community centers. 

Her passion for advocacy took its toll on her personal relationships. As a young girl, she lived in Lafayette, Louisiana. In 1945, she moved to New York where she met Alvaro Ceballos, a Colombian businessman. Her husband took her to live in Bogota. However, her boldness (for a woman in those times) in starting the city’s first opera company led to their eventual divorce. 

Ceballos is planning on finishing a book that she is currently working on about the history of the feminist movement in the United States. 

“We accomplished a lot,” Ceballos says. “Today, we are up against conservatives who want to take away the gains we’ve won. Still, I have faith that today’s young feminists will pick up the banner for complete equality worldwide for women.”

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