At the opening of the Connecticut Feminist Federal Credit Union in August 1974, 24-year-old Dawn Ladd used a bolt cutter to snap a five-foot-long steel chain. Ladd, the credit union’s president, explained that she was symbolically “breaking the economic chains” that tie women down. Susan Osborne, 26 and a cofounder of the credit union, spoke to reporters about the group’s mission: “Our answer to this continuing discrimination is to create our own credit institution, a credit union where we can save money together and where we lend our money, to each other.”
Forty-six years later, Osborne repeated her message to me: “It’s not just enough to have the will or the need, you actually need the resources.”
In the 1970s, feminist federal credit unions tried to bypass sexist financial institutions by supporting women’s economic decisions and funding women’s businesses. Today, amid the Covid-19 pandemic, women- and minority-owned businesses are still contending with unequal access to credit. In the absence of strong regulatory measures under the Trump administration, the feminist credit union movement can again be a model for activists and businesses unwilling to wait for the government to enforce its anti-discrimination laws.
Throughout the women’s liberation movement, activists often split into two categories: a mainstream willing to push for legislation, like the Equal Rights Amendment, and a vanguard that believed legislative reform was not enough to change culture. Women’s health activists, for instance, embraced “self help,” the idea that women could be their own gynecologists and, if necessary, perform their own abortions. That do-it-ourselves attitude was at its height in 1972 in Detroit when Joanne Parrent and Valerie Angers met at the church-basement meetings of the Women’s Liberation Coalition of Michigan.
“We had come out of groups in college working to protest the war,” Parrent recalled over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. At the Women’s Liberation Coalition, she and other feminists gathered for National Organization for Women (NOW) meetings, operated a phone line for women seeking an abortion, and organized consciousness-raising groups, meetings where women gathered to discuss the root political causes behind their personal struggles. It was at those meetings that Parrent noticed women frequently talking about not having access to credit, especially when going through a divorce.
Until the Equal Credit Opportunity Act of 1974, most banks required a woman to present a male cosigner—usually her father if she was single and her husband if she was married. Bank officers also frequently asked women about their reproductive plans to determine if they were eligible for a loan.