Martha Guerra, Early Member of NOW, Reflects on Women’s Rights and Looks to the Future

March is Women’s History Month, a time to celebrate the many contributions to society that women have made. Women’s History Month is also a time to reflect on the numerous injustices that women have fought hard to overcome throughout history–and those that remain.

Martha Guerra, who lives at Walden Place in Cortland, New York, played an active role in the women’s rights movement in the United States.

Martha lived in Geneva, New York, which was very close to Seneca Falls, where Elizabeth Cady Stanton wrote the Declaration of Sentiments. Seneca Falls is considered the birthplace of the Women’s Rights Movement.

“We used to always say that some people go to the Wailing Wall; we go to Seneca Falls,” Martha says.

In the 1960’s, Martha was inspired by what is now referred to as the second-wave feminist era. She decided to get involved in the movement after reading an article in the newspaper about women’s rights.

“What they had to say sounded like something my sister and I would be interested in,” Martha says. “So when I called her and told her, she said, ‘Sign us up!’ So I did.”

Martha and her sister Maria supporting the Equal Rights Amendment
Martha and her sister Maria supporting the Equal Rights Amendment

Martha became one of the first members to join the National Organization of Women (NOW), which was founded in 1966 after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) of 1965 failed to end employment sex discrimination. Martha quickly learned that NOW was looking to expand, and she volunteered to start a NOW chapter in Geneva.

“It’s very empowering to be with people who feel the same way that you do about something,” Martha says.

Most of the women interested in joining Martha’s NOW chapter were students from nearby Hobart and William Smith Colleges. She worked with these women to discuss the priorities of NOW and the larger feminist movement. As participation and awareness increased around the country, Martha and her sister were travelling and spreading the word. They would often venture from Washington, D.C., and back to New York City to participate in marches and protests, particularly those in support of the Equal Rights Amendment.

“I was very much in favor [of her involvement],” says Martha’s husband, Joe Guerra. “They had to overcome the charge that women were just bra burners.”

Joe remembers a time when he was discussing Title IX with Martha. He asked if she could imagine women playing basketball. Martha’s response? “They were never given the chance.” Now Joe is glad they were.

“My God, these women basketeers are darn good!” he says. “They can shoot the three-pointers.”

Martha and fellow protesters march in Romulus, N.Y., to oppose the storage of nuclear weapons.
Martha and fellow protesters march in Romulus, N.Y., to oppose the storage of nuclear weapons.

For the past three years, Martha and Joe have lived together at Walden Place, where Jessica Daily is the Resident Program Director.

“Martha has really encouraged us to explore women’s history, celebrate Women’s History Month, and add more programming during that time,” says Jessica. “We have taken bus trips to Seneca Falls, and she gave a lecture to our residents on women’s rights.”

Martha also began a book club with residents that features female authors.

“Her book case that she has in her room has six shelves,” Joe says. “I don’t think there’s a male author in there.”

“I think for time immemorial, men have been writing about women,” Martha says. “I wanted to read women writing about women. So that’s what I do.”

While Martha has enjoyed seeing the women’s rights movement make strides of progress over her lifetime, she does not think the fight for gender equality is over.

“Unfortunately, I think women as a generation following me, they kind of have the idea that we’ve got everything we need, and we really haven’t,” she says. “So we’ve got to overcome that. I see that as a challenge.”

Today, she sees equal pay for equal work as a top priority for women’s rights.

“I am forever on a mission,” Martha says.


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