By Denise Dunbar | [email protected]
As New Year’s Day 1973 loomed, Judith Knee was eager for a change. Newly divorced, Knee made a host of resolutions: go back to school and get a master’s degree, join a gym – and join a women’s rights organization. She attended her first National Organization for Women meeting in early January and her life was changed forever.
“I was never a person who made New Year’s resolutions, but in 1973 I did. I went to my first local NOW chapter meeting in the first week of January 1973 … and I never did any of those other things,” Knee laughed. “The women’s movement, first of all it felt like home right away. But also at that time, it’s probably still true, if you were good and willing, you got put to work.”
Not only did NOW provide the change Knee was looking for, but it became a vital part of her life.
“There are two things that make me, me. One is my involvement in social justice movements and the other is my love for theater,” Knee said. “If you know those two things about me, you know an awful lot.”
When Knee walked into that initial NOW meeting in January 1973, it was just a few weeks before the Supreme Court’s 7-2 decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized the right to abortion.
It was also less than a year after the U.S. Senate ratified the Equal Rights Amendment – the House had approved it the prior year – which sent the ERA to state legislatures for consideration. Although she didn’t know it at the time, Knee would later become a leader in the effort to ratify the ERA.
During the rest of the ‘70s, Knee held a succession of increasingly prominent positions within NOW, starting locally, then regionally and finally becoming one of the most senior and trusted lieutenants to Eleanor Smeal, a legendary feminist leader and the national NOW president.
“Before the first year of my NOW membership was over, I was a chapter officer. Then, six to nine months later, I became the state president of NOW in New Jersey. Then I became the mid-Atlantic regional director of the six state mid-Atlantic region,” Knee said.
Knee said she was aware almost from the start that her work at NOW was important and was making a difference.
“When I think back to that time, help wanted ads were, ‘Help wanted, male’ and ‘Help wanted, female,’” Knee said. “We fought that and we got it changed. We would lobby legislators and we would do ‘actions.’ I remember when I was state president of NOW New Jersey, we did a series of actions across the state at six different Sears stores. … We saw real changes. The Little League was all boys and we fought about that, too, and girls got to join the Little League.”
Born into what she called a “high holiday” Jewish family in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1946, Knee became interested in social justice issues at an early age. Her father owned a series of small grocery markets in predominantly Black neighborhoods and her earliest friends were the children of patrons.
“My father had sort of combination small grocery/ butcher shops in primarily Black neighborhoods in Philly. All of my early life, my brother and I were the only white kids in the neighborhood. We moved from living above the shop when I was five. That’s where all my imprinting was,” Knee said.
Knee watched as her father succeeded more in helping the poor children who came into his grocery than he did as a store owner.
“He was a real sweetheart of a man, but he was a terrible businessman,” Knee said. “If a kid came into the store with a quarter for a loaf of bread, they wound up leaving with the quarter and the loaf of bread and five dollars for a pair of shoes.”
When Knee was in high school, she said there was a program whereby the valedictorian of each high school got a full scholarship to any college in Philadelphia. After finishing first in her class, Knee decided to attend the University of Pennsylvania, where she majored in English.
Because of the scholarship, “I graduated from college with something like only $400 in student debt,” Knee said.
Knee graduated from Penn and got married in the tumultuous year of 1968, when the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. sparked race riots, the Vietnam War gave rise to growing student protests and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy further traumatized an already demoralized country.
“After graduating, we relocated to New Jersey. I was working for the phone company in Newark when the riots happened,” Knee said. “There were truckloads of people with guns and things. Newark was very locked down during that period.”
It was through her job at Bell that Knee’s work life intersected with her NOW activism: She was able to wrangle an “executive loan” whereby AT&T, which Bell had become after divestiture, paid Knee’s salary for a year while she was on loan to NOW.
And then her one-year executive loan became two.
“A guy who I knew was a vice president at AT&T, and without even asking me, he went to my human resources vice president, who had not been happy about me leaving and getting this executive loan,” Knee said. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody so happy in my entire life. Give her another year.’ And they did.”
Knee’s primary responsibility during her two-year stint of working full-time for NOW was helping with the effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
A proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution must pass by a two-thirds vote in both houses of the U.S. Congress – which the ERA had done in 1971 and 1972 – and then must be passed by three-fourths of the state legislatures in the U.S.
Knee said that when NOW was lobbying Congress, their goals were twofold: to get the deadline for ratification extended and to prevent states that had previously ratified from being able to rescind their support for the ERA. She was in the middle of the effort to get additional states to ratify.
“One of my responsibilities was to keep a vote count of how we were doing regarding lobbying legislators,” Knee said. “One of the big strengths of NOW, different from many women’s organizations … in addition to having a national organization, we had chapters all across the country. We had activists in the local organizations. When the legislator was home, we had people who would go lobby them.
“All of this information came to me. We would keep a list and every week we would sit down and give them the latest numbers and everything,” Knee said.
What was supposed to be a one-year rotation at NOW had morphed into two years, and then became a permanent move to D.C.
“Having been here, the seat of all this stuff for two years, I didn’t want to go back to New Jersey,” Knee said. “The other reason I didn’t want to go back is the D.C. metro region area is the second theater city in the country. There is no place with more theater than the D.C. metro area except New York City.”
The same vice president who helped wrangle Knee’s second year of executive loan to NOW aided her cause again by talking a vice president at C&P Telephone into creating a job for her.
“So that’s how I came to stay here. And it’s clearly where I should be,” Knee said.
Once in D.C., Knee served as NOW’s by-laws chair for many years. In 1999, NOW honored her with a resolution that read, in part:
“Whereas the esteemed Judith Knee, for the better part of seventeen years, has selflessly devoted her time and resources to serving as Bylaws Chair, also known as Bylaws Queen, of the National Organization for Women; and
“Whereas throughout these years Judith Knee has successfully led and guided us in the understanding and interpretation of both the NOW grievance policy and Robert’s Rule of Order Newly Revised, a feat worthy of the Nobel peace prize; and
“Therefore be it resolved that the National Organization for Women honors and salutes the distinguished Judith Knee.”
Knee decided to move from her home in D.C. into Hermitage Northern Virginia two years ago. She made the move at age 71, making her much younger than most residents of senior living facilities.
“The way I describe my move to Hermitage is it was the right move at the right time,” Knee said. “A lot of people have spouses or they have children who take care of their financial aspects. I have no children. If I ever need assistance of some kind, there really is no person to provide that.”
A friend suggested Knee consider a senior living community, and when she started doing financial and personal calculations, she decided moving was right for her.
“The residents [at Hermitage], while they’re mostly older than me, they’re wonderful,” Knee said. “The staff has taken such good care of me during all of this.”
Knee said she has been particularly impressed with how Hermitage has handled safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic; she has tested negative for COVID-19 four times
“At first I thought, ‘This is not where I need to be during a pandemic.’ But Hermitage has done everything absolutely right. We do not have any cases in the building,” Knee said.
Living in a senior living facility has not diminished her love for, or access to area theater. Her favorite venue for theater has long been Signature Theatre, which Knee said is an eight-minute drive from Hermitage.
“My home theater is Signature Theatre in Arlington. It’s a very magical place. It’s my happy place on the planet,” she said. “Being here is perfect for me.”
Knee said getting to know people like Smeal and Gloria Steinem was a special part of her long involvement in the women’s movement.
“Ellie in particular, I refer to her as a gift in my life,” Knee said.
“I came to D.C. in 1979 to work on the final push for the equal rights amendment and here it is 40 years later: I’m still here and we still don’t have the ERA.”