Alice Radosh

“I’ve always considered myself an activist.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, November 2021

AR:  My name is Alice Radosh. I was born in the Bronx in 1941, where I lived for three years.

JW:  Please briefly tell us about your life before the women’s movement started.

AR:  My background or identification is Jewish and secular. I was brought up in Westchester County in a totally non-Jewish, Republican, conservative, fairly wealthy town, and I think it really shaped a lot about who I am. For one thing, in terms of a girl’s role, it was not a put-down to be a strong girl.

We were expected to be smart. We were expected to be athletic. That was very prized in my community, and we were expected to be involved in activities. I don’t think it was an openly sexist community at all. Of course, there were traditional roles for women, which I totally bought into as a kid. Who doesn’t? And it wasn’t until I was about 17 that I began to take a closer look at justice and equality issues in general and women’s issues in particular.

JW:  What do you think made you take that look?

AR:  I got married extremely young. I was a kid, and had my children fairly early. And one of the things that I always remember was when I was 20 and nursing my daughter and was reading Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique and thinking, oh, my God. It was really the “aha” moment eye opener. So that was certainly influential. And then when I came back to New York City, (I had been in Wisconsin), it was really just the beginnings of political movements, a civil rights movement. Not too long after that, there was consciousness raising and the protests of the Vietnam War. A lot of things began to just happen culturally that I was very fortunate to be part of because of the timing of when I was born.

JW:  Where did your consciousness raising groups lead you?

AR:  To who I am today, in part. To really questioning ways in which I was given subtle messages. The one I always love is this. Being smart was an important thing for my family, and I struggled through high school. I didn’t really come into my own until college. When I lived at home, I was one of four children. I had a sister and two brothers. Academically, I was really struggling.

I had a good time. I didn’t put my effort into my work, but my family’s attitude became, “That’s, okay, Alice is good with people.” They’d never say that about a boy, is what I felt – that I could get away with it because I was female. That kind of awareness started to really grow and then just talking to other people and of course, having a child at a fairly young age. I was 21 when Laura was born. My whole life changed. I was also at the same time starting graduate school in a very demanding field.

Any question that brought up things like, oh, who should do housework and who should do this and who should that? That was clearly very appealing to me, because how I was going to manage being a mother and being a doctoral student and maybe working part-time was beyond my understanding at the time. It was all those things.

JW:  Did your husband do house cleaning?

AR:  Yes. I was definitely at that point. There was an understanding, not early on, but it wasn’t much longer before it was clear that men were going to be part of this movement as well.

JW:  What were the early organizations you got involved in?

AR:  Very early on, really it was more social justice, civil rights, integration, marching in front of Woolworth’s. And Mickey Schwerner, who was a year above me in my high school and of course, I knew him. And with his death, it really brought home a lot of issues in a very personal way. I would say it was more of those kinds of political issues initially. And then beginning to see that within those movements, women’s roles were not really being respected and honored. And I always remember Marge Piercy’s poems about the women doing the serving, and I definitely became aware of that. It was those things.

JW:  Can you talk about Education Equity Concepts? What is that about?

AR:  It’s a group that still exists today, looking within the schools, within educational framework. Equity is certainly for women. But then it really expanded to disability issues and race issues and class issues. But very definitely women’s issues. And they’re still publishing and working today. And one of the key figures is a very good friend of mine who’s in that women’s study group that I told you about.

JW:  Please tell us about the women’s study group.

AR:  It was started about 44 years ago, and we’ve met almost every single month for 44 years. It was started by a group of young women at the time who were part of the Feminist Press. And they had recently left the Press and reached out to others of us. And I was one of the initial people. There are nine of us. We’ve been together as a group for 44 years, and our newest member came in 1986. If you do the math, you can see that it’s been a very tight and very supportive group.

Our reading is focused almost exclusively on women’s issues. I could send you the list of what we’ve read, but what we do is take a topic and really stay on that topic, mostly nonfiction. But where fiction works in, we’ll read that as well. It’s been a number of things. It’s been a solid group of nine people who have shared practically a lifetime of experience, certainly all of our adult years together, raising children, all of the things we do, working through our jobs and the changes in our lives and the lives of our children.

We’ve shared all of that. But we’ve also been reading every single month, and we’re very serious about it. The joke is we’re a study group. Don’t call us a book group. But it’s true. There’s very little time for gossiping, and everybody reads the book. Nobody says, “Oh, I didn’t get a chance to read it.” It’s a serious study group, and it’s been wonderful. It’s really been a terrific thing for all of us clearly.

JW:  Do you remember some of the early books you read, and also some you have read in the last couple of months?

AR:  Yes, I have a list. I have an amazing list of books. But early on, we read Juliet Mitchell, Dorothy Dinnerstein. You have to go back to the women of the left, 44 years ago. That’s what we were reading. Probably about three or even four years ago, long before Black Lives Matter became a central part of our culture, we started looking at the African American experience in the U.S., and we have a list of books that rivals any college course.

I’m very serious about that. You name it, and we have read it and discussed it. Right now, we’re looking at issues of Palestinian women and Palestine in general. The last book was actually a novel called The Parisian, the story of a young man who was brought up in Nablus. So that’s been terrific. And we’re continuing with that theme with a book called Salt Houses. It’s different themes. Feminism is a key part of our reading, as is class and race.

JW:  Early on, you taught at Brooklyn College, and you taught Women’s Studies and Psychology of Women courses starting in the ’70s. Can you tell us about that?

AR:  It’s hard to know what interests you most. I was in the Psych Department and Psychology of Women was a regular course. It’s not something that I developed. If I go back to my feeling when I read Betty Friedan with my Brooklyn students, I definitely watched that experience with them. I watched them just become amazed and have a feeling of being noticed as women and the issues that they were concerned about. And this included women from all sectors.

Sometimes I had Hasidic women, which was unusual, but I did. I often had older women and their stories. They wanted to hear what people were starting to talk about. I remember one course where I had three men in the course and they dominated class discussion. So after about two weeks of that, we stopped and looked at that, and it’s like people had hardly noticed. It was terrific. Women’s Studies was a fairly new department. Actually, it wasn’t a department. It was probably attached to a few departments. And for that, I co-taught it with a woman who’s still a very close friend of mine, who is also a member of my study group.

JW:  May I assume you raised the question about who participates the most in these classes when you noticed the men were dominating the discussions?

AR:  To take it back for a minute, maybe at about the same time, I began to become more aware of that in my own life. I mentioned about Marge Piercy taking a look at how women and men operated on the left. I became aware that I would say something in a group and it would be passed over and then a man would say the same thing, and suddenly they heard it being said. I was aware of that feeling long before I started to teach my psychology courses.

One of the ways in which I became aware of it, oddly enough, was an informal group just sitting around and we were working on a crossword puzzle, and one of the guys was writing down the answers that we were coming up with. And I began to notice that when I suggested what should go in the little boxes in the crossword puzzle, he literally reached for his pencil, put down the pen, reached for the pencil, and wrote it in. And then he’d go back and some man would make a suggestion and he’d have the pen in his hand and he’d write it in.

And I think it happened two or three times before I noticed and thought, what the hell’s going on here? It’s small things that make you realize that you’re not being heard, you’re not being listened to. And by the time I was teaching, I was very aware of that. And when it started to happen in my own class, I used it as a way of explaining what happens in our society. It’s very easy to make the connection.

JW:  Do you remember the reactions of the students?

AR:  Yes, I think it was not fully accepted. A lack of awareness of it before. And it was so obvious. And I didn’t just say, “Hey, this is what happened. Come on, we’re not going to do this.” I made it into a teaching moment, so I don’t remember everyone’s reaction. But it’s funny. There are so many things I remember for my classes, but I remember a discussion about the information about having children, male and female. You probably know this data, but if a couple has two children and they’re both female, they are more likely to go for a third child. If you have two male children, you are less likely to go for a third child.

I was talking about that study from way back, and the women just started to open up about their own lives. The woman who said when she had her daughter, her husband brought her a big bouquet of roses to the hospital. When she had her son, he brought a diamond. When you teach Psychology of Women or Women’s Studies, you have an opportunity to let people talk. Nobody calls it consciousness raising. And I’m a professor, so of course, I brought in a lot of studies, but it was also just an opportunity for people to look at their own lives. We did that.

JW:  I noticed that not long after that, you were Vice Chair of the Board of the Center for Population Options. Please tell us about that.

AR:  Before that, is the work that I did with Safe Homes Project and women and domestic violence. I think that preceded because by the time I was working on teen pregnancy issues, which is what Center for Population Options would be talking about, I was again working with the Safe Homes Project, both as a volunteer at safe homes and my family was a home. The way it worked, and this was when I was living in Brooklyn, is that women would call in dire straits having to get out of their homes.

And we had a network of “safe homes” in the neighborhood. And people could show up at any time and be brought to your house for safety reasons. First my family was doing it on a volunteer basis. And then I started to work as a researcher at a domestic violence shelter in Brooklyn. All of that precedes the teen pregnancy work. It precedes and also goes along with it. It overlaps at times.

I was the head of a network of 74 agencies that worked on the issue of teen pregnancy. And teen pregnancy and women’s issues are absolutely totally linked. Girls feeling that they have the right to say no, and that they have the right to use birth control, without being a “bad girl.” All of those issues come up under teen pregnancy, which is the primary work that I did. I did it first with all of these agencies that varied from Planned Parenthood to Catholic Charities. We had the whole group in there. And it was terrific. Just wonderful. I did that for about three or four years.

And then I was asked if I would do it for the City of New York. So that’s what gave me real access to a lot of things that are on the list. I worked directly for the Mayor of the City of New York, setting up a program called OAPS, Office of Adolescent Pregnancy and Parenting Services. And within that context, I was able to do a lot of what people would think of as feminist work. Only I got paid for it, and it was under the heading of teenage pregnancy.

JW:  I’m interested in the role Catholic Charities played in your group.

AR:  Catholic Charities in New York has major responsibility for homes for pregnant teenagers and services for pregnant teenagers. There’s no birth control discussed or allowed. And that, of course, became an issue. But the feeling was that there was enough of a reason for everybody who provided services. That’s what brought them in. It’s not an agreement in terms of ideology, certainly with Planned Parenthood. But if you were going to be providing services in Brooklyn, you really needed to be in connection with the other 70 plus agencies doing this work.

They all came in, and everyone was glad to have them. And there was “no fighting, no biting,” as my kids would say. There was an understanding that different services are provided. There was no hostility, because the main issue that everyone had to deal with was getting these services to these kids. And for some, that meant access to abortion services. For others, it meant a place where they could go safely during their pregnancy.

When I worked for the City of New York, there had been schools for pregnant teens, but I didn’t want or like those all that much. But we set up a daycare within the high schools so that girls could continue to go to school after they gave birth. And everyone knew that these kinds of services were essential. We also set up clinics within the schools where birth control was made available. Catholic Charities had no part of that, but Planned Parenthood did. This is all part of the work that I did.

JW:  You mentioned briefly about the schools for pregnant teens. Did they have many of them in New York? And you said you weren’t fond of them. I’d like to hear about that.

AR:  I think maybe there were five or six. I wasn’t happy with them because there was a sense of, these kids don’t really matter. It wasn’t academically rigorous. And one of the things that we insisted upon, and this was a change, is that you could not ask a pregnant student to leave school, that they had the right to stay in school pregnant, and they had the right to come back to school with their child later.

People could talk a lot about feminism, but if you don’t provide very basic services, then you’re not doing what I feel needs to be done. These schools, I felt, weren’t providing enough of the basic services. I couldn’t say that then, because they were part of the school system, and I was part of the mayor’s office. But in fact, they did not have good academic criteria, and they kind of pushed these kids off.

JW:  And I assume that there must have been some stigma about it. You can’t be in this group. You have to be in your own place where we don’t see you very much.

AR:  Right. And that’s what we insisted had to stop, and it did. You were able to continue in school. One of the more interesting moments is that the New York City Catholic schools get public money and therefore have to abide by what the rules are for your city or your state. And since our rules were that you could not tell a kid to leave, I remember one discussion with a Catholic school where I explained, “No, you can’t tell the girl to leave.” And they said, “Yes, but we don’t have uniforms that would fit.” They didn’t have a Catholic youth school uniform for pregnant students. I said, “Make one.” But anyway, it gives you a sense of it. It was a very interesting job. I enjoyed it.

JW:  And you continued to be an activist in a variety of different ways?

AR:  Yes. Although I was also raising my family and working full time. I think I’ve always considered myself an activist. It might be something that comes up for a demonstration or just something that people are called out for. I didn’t belong to Redstockings or any of the classic New York groups. But I was always part of a women’s group during that time.

And when there was an issue, as with today, when there’s an issue, you get out. Although today I’m once again involved in a group. But then, the groups kind of came and went. I was involved in parenting, and saw changes within the school. I worked as a sex equity coordinator. When my kids were in school, there was also a focus on what’s the education for girls and boys in school having to deal with these issues that I cared about. I was able to do that.

JW:  And what’s the group you’re involved with now?

AR:  It’s called OWRS. Older Women Remember & Speak Out. I love the name. The focus is really on getting people to talk and speak and try and lose the stigma and the shame that goes with abortion and just being able to talk about it. And that’s one of our things. Talk about it. Now, even in our short time, I think we’ve been together four years – I forget, because the pandemic makes time bizarre – now there’s a lot more focus on talking about it and not being afraid.

And the whole thing about saying you’re pro-abortion, not pro-choice, or being able to clearly say, no, I’m not sorry. I’m very glad that I was able to have that – which you were never permitted to say. It was always, well, of course, I wish I didn’t have had to. But we’re really talking about trying to do away with that. And mainly it’s limited to sending out e-blasts. Just take a topic and get it out to as many people as we can, as fast as we can. But now it feels to me like there’s more and more people doing that work, which is great.

JW:  How did your involvement in the women’s movement affect your life?

AR:  Absolutely in every way. Certainly, in my home life, in terms of how I raised my children. They would tell you, too. One of the family stories that we laugh about is when I was sitting with my ten-year-old daughter. She was going to bed. I was sitting on the edge of her bed and we were talking, and I was probably going on with whatever my usual line was at the time. And she finally interrupted me, and she said, “I know I can become a doctor. I want to become a nurse.”

It’s like, all right, back off. I got the message. But I think that certainly how I raised my children, certainly the life that I was very fortunate to live with my husband, who was as strong as I was on the same issues and then my choice of friends, my choice of acquaintances, my choice of what I get involved in, what I read, everything. You could not take the importance of feminism and my involvement with women’s issues out of any part of my life.

I didn’t see myself as a tomboy, but certainly athletic, and I was on the basketball team in high school. When I came back from college to Brooklyn, I put up a sign in the neighborhood for starting a women’s basketball team with the round women’s symbol with a basketball, and I got calls and we set up a team and met every single week. There’s no way in which it hasn’t been part of my life. From basketball to all of my work and almost all my discussions. Nothing gets passed over as, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter.” If it’s about women, it matters.