THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I Was Always Aware of a Sense of Unfairness about Women”
Interviewed by Muriel Fox
MF: Marcy Syms, you joined NOW when you were in college. What made you decide to be an active feminist?
MS: I think I was a feminist – certainly before the age of 11. Because as the oldest of six children, I was the first child as a female and then three boys in the family and two younger sisters. A mother who experienced postpartum depression. I became in essence a kind of second mom. And so I was always doing chores. Now my brothers did chores too. But they were mostly outside chores which seemed a lot more interesting than the inside chores.
And I just thought it was unfair.
So I went around with this sense of unfairness. And I think my awareness of unfairness about how the sexes were treated differently. As I entered school years and the kinds of things that were expected from boy students who spoke up a lot more than the girls students and got called on to lead groups a lot more than the girls students. I don’t know I was – I didn’t have the word feminist certainly but there was a sense of unfairness about things that I was very aware of.
I Had A Different Plan
And then at about the age of 11 I overheard my mother tell a neighbor that what she hoped for my future was that I married a nice man. And at 11 I wasn’t thinking boys or men. But I certainly thought that that was not my plan for myself. So that was a moment where I felt very much like the rebel and the status quo or what the older generation expected from me was not going to happen.
MF: Did your mother’s life influence your desire to be a feminist?
MS: I think so. I think my mother’s life very much affected my sense of what a place a woman has in our culture.
I mean my mother’s generation we each have an experience as being American and being of a certain historical generation. My mother was a first generation American Jewish woman who had the good fortune of having a talent – she could sing.
And at the age of 16 she was actually brought around by my grandmother who still spoke Yiddish from Romania and found her a job at a radio station singing songs. And my mother did that for about three years before she met my father.
The Importance of Making Your Own Way
I always felt that my mother’s life – although on the surface seeming successful and that she had these six beautiful children – no one knew about the depression part. Was really sad that she gave up her singing career. And she had some of these records – the 78 records that she kept and on occasion would pull out.
And there would be no look on her face that inspired me as a young girl – than the look she got when she heard herself singing on these records. The other thing I remember growing up is that her mother – my Bubbie – grew up in Philadelphia. My mother grew up in the Bronx.
And Bubbie always told me that the most important thing she ever did was being promoted to the assistant manager of the shoe store that she worked in as a young woman before getting married. And she said it often enough and in different occasions of my life – threw it in – kind of you know – kind of ad hoc into every conversation. I got the message that it was very important to be independent and to have a career and to make your own way.
MF: Did your younger siblings give you respect or did they give you a hard time because you were a girl?
MS: Well, because I was the oldest and then there were three boys – and because my mom often was not very – always involved in the mother role – I did actually get quite a bit of respect from my brothers. I think that they became better men as a result of having a woman who they had to deal with who is more a peer than just a mother. And, I mean, as we got older and I became more of the woman talking to my father as I was growing up – I realized that my father had six older sisters.
Now birth order is a funny kind of thing. It really does affect our personalities in ways that are unique, but some similar. And most men who have that many sisters who are older than them learn to go to women for advice. They learn to listen to women and that relationship that I had with my father – to a large extent credit to the fact that he had six older sisters.
So I got that respect from my dad and my brothers saw that respect. So I think just by you know keeping things harmonious they respected me more than disrespected me.
My First Job
MF: Did you work before going to college? And did you see any unequal treatment of males and females in those early days?
MS: I did. I did go to work before college and I worked in my father’s store – Syms.
My first job there was at 14. And I was a person who would run between the basement and the selling floor to bring inventory up when it was low and straighten it out. And on the weekends I would go with my dad in his Dodge – this huge station wagon to deliver merchandise.
And what I saw was that everyone that my father was dealing with – he was buying merchandise from the producers of the merchandise – the landlords – the people who would come around for inspections even from the city. And they were all men. And it just didn’t make sense. It just didn’t make sense. There was something ridiculous about the whole thing.
Seeing the Mistreatment of Women
I personally didn’t have any sense of mistreatment of women in that context – in the small business experience. I certainly had experience later on. I had studied communications and my first job was with a broadcast company and I was fortunate enough to become the assistant to the president of the broadcast company and then became the producer of his radio show, which was great great fun. But he had a vice president who had – somehow we got off on the wrong foot.
I Am Pretty Transparent
I knew that he was having an affair with one of the other producers who happened to be a married woman. I was a single woman at the time and he was married. So you know – knowing that and looking at him – I don’t know. I’m pretty transparent and I don’t fake it well and maybe I made him feel uncomfortable because he knew that I knew whatever it was.
Anyway, the president left the company to join an administration in Washington D.C. And just about three weeks after leaving – I was left as the Director of Community Affairs. So before leaving the president gave me a title that was just not connected only with him but with the station totally. And you know this is just one of those examples of sexual discrimination which at the time just seemed like a personal – not liking. And not so much discrimination of a whole sex.
But I do remember very distinctly that he came into my office and closed the door and turned his chair as if he were John Wayne in an OK Corral movie or something. And leaned over my desk and said “Marcy, what are your plans?” And I said I don’t know – Must’ve been the Bette Davis in me took over – the Joan Crawford – I looked him in the eyes not wanting to seem intimidated by anything – and I said “your job.”
And he said, “You’re fired.” And that was the end. He got up from his chair as if I had given him just what he wanted to legitimize the firing that had – you know there was nothing in my file – for anyway. This was before we had those kinds of legislation to protect women. And it was that event that actually persuaded me to take my father up on his offer of working with him in his business. Because I thought at least this man isn’t going to fire me.
The Fearless Girl
MF: When did you participate in your first feminist march?
MS: This morning I was down in the Wall Street area at the “Fearless Girl” statue. And we were having an event to support the Equal Rights Amendment. And it reminded me that the first time I ever participated in any kind of an organized protest – this is not a – in your own life see what you can do kind of thing – was really through NOW, the National Organization of Women in 1970.
I was at college here in New York and there was a march in New York City – a very sizable March. I don’t remember exactly – but maybe – I don’t know – maybe even a half a million women and men were there. It was very much a mixed bag of men – women – children.
It was overwhelmingly exciting. And that was the first time that I marched for women’s causes. But the actual very first time that I was an activist with a group was going in ’69 to Washington for a march against the Vietnam War.
Women Must Be Recognized
MF: Is there one feminist issue that’s especially important to you?
MS: I believe the most important issue that feminists have to achieve and to focus on – Is accomplishing getting women to have equal rights under the law. The Constitution of the United States does not recognize women. We don’t exist as citizens unless you get to 1919 and voting. But just voting doesn’t give you rights as a citizen on all areas that you are operating as a citizen.
We have sexual discrimination. We have domestic violence. We have financial issues. We have ownership issues. There are so many. We have healthcare issues. We have no – right to life and right to abortion issues that we cannot really find answers to without having recognition in the Constitution. There is no other issue I feel at this point in our history as a country that’s more important than getting women in the Constitution.
MF: What would it take to pass the ERA today?
MS: Well we just had Nevada just passed the ERA. They voted on the ERA amendment and they became the 36th state to do so. So if you follow the thirty-eight state solution, we only need two more states. Illinois is quite close to coming to a vote right now. There’s been a lot going on in Illinois politics on a local and state level where there’s movement and energy around getting this passed.
The challenge then is going to be will Congress allow or pass legislation that lifts the deadline, which was 1982 to the original. And will the five states that have since 1982 rescinded on their passage come back and say that they will approve it. Many believe that we should do what Carolyn Maloney (Congresswoman D-NY) suggested and she went over that again this morning. That in her bill that is now – it is entered into Congress. It can be voted on.
As a matter of fact last year – last session – every Wednesday night we had discussions about the ERA and what it would take and tried to educate members of Congress about it. She believes that the best way to go about getting equal rights in the Constitution is to start from scratch and to have a groundswell. And in this age of social media we know that things can happen quite quickly. And this is an issue that can catch fire quite quickly once it gets enough coverage and there’s enough outcry.
Roe Vs. Wade
MF: Is there a memory or moment in your feminist work that gives you special great joy?
MS: It wasn’t really personal, but the thing that made me weep with joy was the Supreme Court decision of Roe vs. Wade. I saw being a mother with six children that the last two pregnancies she had were not wanted. That at the time that she became pregnant with – I mean I love my two sisters but – the time that she became pregnant in order for her to have an abortion she would have to have three doctors certify that she was mentally unfit to be a mother.
And then she’d have to find a doctor to perform the abortion. So forgetting even about promiscuous young woman or forgetting even about rape. We have so many women who gave birth in a married situation to children that they were not capable of raising or financially were not – so to me I felt this was going to change our reality. And indeed it did.
MF: When the Syms Corporation went public in 1983 you were named president and you later became CEO. Was there any furor because you were promoted over two brothers?
MS: When I became president in 1983 of Syms Corp. it was because we decided to take the company public. We were a small regional retailer that went on the New York Stock Exchange and so we brought in Wall Street and we had two investment banking firms come in and follow us around and look at our books and look at our organizational chart and the result was that they said you need an organizational chart and you need to have job descriptions and you need to have titles.
Because in a family business everyone does everything and you just get it done. Well the title decided to give me was president. Of course my dad the founder was at that time Chair and CEO. It did cause quite a stir with my younger brothers. I had two very supportive brothers. One younger brother who was very upset and did try to turn things negative. But it didn’t last very long because I think the relationship that I had with my other brothers growing up was that we could work together and that’s what made it possible.
MF: In the outside world was there any reaction to your being the youngest woman president of a New York Stock Exchange corporation?
MS: Yes. I must say that being the – I think the youngest woman to ever be president of a New York Stock Exchange company, it didn’t matter to the outside world really what title I had. When I walked into a meeting they still looked behind me to see who else was going to enter the room to do business. And it always reminded me of Bella Abzug and why she would wear a hat. And I did actually mimic her for years and went everywhere wearing a hat – to kind of show my seriousness.
But in all honesty the lack of preparedness on so many men’s part – when they met me for negotiating leases or union contracts or purchasing merchandise – whatever it was – I thought it certainly didn’t prove to be successful for them. But they did prepare less it seemed to me because in observing how they would deal with a man in the same setting. Because then I would have a man with me usually on the second meeting.
They got down to business much quicker. Were much more serious and were much more prepared for the facts of the deal. So to my mind it was demeaning. It was a waste of time. And certainly if I didn’t have my name on the company – if the company name on the invoice and my last name were not shared – I can imagine it would have been even tougher.
So for all the women who were coming up in my generation working on Wall Street – working in companies – going through training programs – the amount of opposition that they had to deal with in order to be recognized and have their talents rewarded. Is extraordinary.
MF: Which feminist organizations did you support financially in the early days of our movement? Do you remember?
MS: NOW was the first one. The National Organization of Women was the first organization. But I think maybe the first check that I wrote to something that I felt I was giving my heart to – was a subscription to Ms. Magazine. I’ll never forget getting New York Magazine and having the middle insert. The Ms. Magazine and reading this thing cover to cover – my heart was pumping faster – my eyes were bulging. It was like it’s speaking to me.
And you know I still get Ms. Magazine and you know I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting and knowing Gloria (Steinem) over the years and becoming involved with Ms. Foundation. And I think after that it was organizations that I felt could be more focused on a political front. So it was the NOW Legal Defense Fund when Muriel Fox was there. And the Women’s Campaign Fund when we got started and made quite a splash.
And I remember Senator Murphy – the first time she went around she hadn’t been elected yet. Talking about the being the soccer mom who is going to be elected to the Senate. And I thought that was really smart. So the Women’s Campaign Fund was one. EMILY’s List Of course. Again – political action.
They tended to be feminist organizations that went to the crux. And the cruxes to really the law. It’s really the law because if you have an issue and you get into a courtroom it comes down to the law. Someone can misbehave socially but unless you have the law to prosecute them – if it steps over the line it’s a bad situation.
Teaching Our Children
MF: You have one son. Is he a feminist? And how have you raised him to be a feminist?
MS: I think he’s a feminist. He certainly is very polite. Because I made sure that he understood that opening doors and letting women walk in first was not putting them down. So those manners were still important. But I think just because he observed the kinds of struggles and issues I was confronted with as a CEO. The kinds of conversations that he and his dad have. And my part in those conversations I think just by osmosis he’s become a feminist.
And I have to be careful because he is in this country today – the Endangered Species syndrome is being experienced by white males. And my son is a white male and he does comment sometimes on some of the things that I get involved with. “Well what about the men? And what about me? I’m a white male.”
And I think that we do have to answer that question and we have to answer it in a way that is credible that a more equal society is better for everyone because everyone carries their weight. And no one has the burden of carrying someone else. So I hope that that sticks with him through life because it just makes for a more copacetic existence.