THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“Women’s liberation made thinking about lesbianism possible. We can make these kinds of choices about our lives.”
Interviewed by Vivian Rothstein, August and September 2021
VR: It’s August 4, 2021. My name is Vivian Rothstein, and I’m interviewing Amy Kesselman about her history and her involvement in the Second Wave women’s movement and beyond. Amy, tell us a little bit about your origins.
AK: I was born in 1944 to two Jewish parents who had rejected Judaism pretty much. Although I think their ideas about Jewishness changed during the war, and they became more Jewish identified in a secular way. But they had both been in the Communist Party in the ’30s and ’40s. I think my mother left first and my father left in the early ’50s, and as a result, he was part of this purge of the New York City Teachers’ Union. They were both teachers, and it was a purge of the New York City school system of left teachers who supposedly had answered untruthfully to the loyalty oath that they were supposed to sign. So, a lot of teachers got fired. My father managed to get out on a disability before they fired him.
VR: What was your upbringing like? Where were you born?
AK: I was born in New York City in a community called Sunnyside, which had a lot of left wing people because it involved incorporated Sunnyside Gardens, which were private houses that shared a yard. We were waiting for a house to become available, but none did. So we ended up moving to Jackson Heights, which was not a particularly supportive community. And so that’s where I grew up. And I had an older sister who was six years older than me. Her decisions were much more shaped by the ’50s. Mine were much more shaped by the ’60s. I was in high school in the late ’50s, early ’60s, and started getting involved in the anti-nuclear movement and the civil rights movement.
I went to City College. City College had been all male until, I think 1954. I got there in the early ’60s, so there had been women there for a while, but it was still a very male dominated environment. There were more men in every class, and they dominated the courses, and they dominated the various left organizations that I was involved with, which I think made a real difference. I think going to school in a male dominated environment shaped my feelings a lot.
VR: What did you get involved in, in college?
AK: I joined the Marxist discussion group thinking that it was actually going to be a Marxist discussion group, but it wasn’t. I was interested in Marxism. I read everything I could find. I want to back up a little. I had read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir when I was in high school and I just wanted to kill myself. It was an incredibly depressing book, and essentially, she wrote it at a time when feminism was invisible, and she actually said she was not a feminist. She didn’t think that there was much of a likelihood that a women’s movement could develop because women were so separated and isolated from each other.
And she was just really pessimistic. I guess I must have read it in high school, so late ’50s. I had thought about what it meant to be a woman, but I didn’t have anybody to talk to about it. In college, I got involved in a movement to end the war in Vietnam and started the Independent Committee to End the War in Vietnam, which because it was a New York phenomenon, had a million factions in it. And I made up a song that said, “on the first day of the Independent Committee, the campus gave to me, a follower of Leon Trotsky” and it went on for 12 verses. So it was kind of difficult to manage.
VR: What kind of sects were there besides followers of Trotsky? Just some other examples.
AK: There was the Spartacus League. There was the Progressive Labor Party. There was Youth Against War and Fascism. That’s all I can remember right now. But there were more.
VR: And you had to manage them as the leader of this group?
AK: Well, I didn’t do that much managing, but the big action we did was occupying the administration building to demand that the administration stop sending boys’ grades to the draft boards. Because they could lose their student deferment if they got less than a B average.
There were colleges that did refuse to cooperate, and we were trying to get City College to do that. They were adamantly against it, though. In that action, I represented the Independent Committee, and then there were eight or nine other people representing each of these factions. So, it’s nine men and me. And it was horrible. At some point I felt like we were losing. City College students were leaving, and I thought we should take a compromise. I can’t remember what it was, but I was made to feel like a chick who had no courage. “What? Give in now?”
And I didn’t realize that I was right until after the women’s movement erupted. We should have left. We should have taken the compromise, because we ended up dribbling out and feeling like a failure. That was my first conscious experience of sexism, which wasn’t a word at the time. But I wrote about this for something that we all wrote together called “The Gang of Four” published in The Feminist Memoir Project. And I got a note on my email saying “apology from the administration building.” And it was one of those guys. “I’m sorry. I thought you were very smart.” Actually, he wasn’t the worst.
VR: Was that like 50 years later or something?
AK: Yes, and when I graduated, I really didn’t want to do anything but work in the movement. And I ended up going to Chicago to work in a community organization called the Committee for Independent Political Action (CIPA), in a middle-class neighborhood. By that time, I was moving away from Marxism, since it was clear that it was not the working class that was going to make the revolution. And I wanted to organize the people who were, which seemed to be young, middle-class kids. So I was organizing high school students.
VR: Which is when we met through organizing high school kids in Chicago, right?
VR: What did you do with the high school students that you were working with?
AK: We developed a coffee house, which they named the Poison Cookie Hill. And we had discussions there. I don’t remember what else. I think we wrote papers for the Roger’s Spark, which was the newsletter of CIPA.
VR: And you did a project for high school kids during the Democratic convention in 1968. Didn’t you organize a place where young people could go?
AK: I didn’t organize it. Someone else had set it up. But I volunteered to make sure that kids who are underage didn’t get arrested. So that’s what I was doing during the demonstrations at the Democratic convention. There were a lot of kids that came from out of town. I tried to keep them out of the area where the cops were beating people up. That’s all I remember doing.
VR: Pretty important. And then after CIPA, how did you find feminism?
AK: It was at this convention of the National Committee for New Politics (NCNP) and there was a women’s workshop, and we started talking together about the position of women in the left. And Shulie Firestone was one of the people in the workshop, and she took our resolutions and tried to present them to the main group. And was told they had more important things to do.
Well, we were all furious. And out of that workshop emerged the “Westside group,” which was one of the earliest women’s liberation groups. And it was incredibly exciting. I used to tell my students it was the one time that the Earth really moved for me, because problems I thought were individual turned out to be social and therefore, had social solutions and other women felt similarly to how I felt, and it was incredibly exciting.
VR: What did you talk about? And who was in the group?
AK: Well, Shulie Firestone was in it for a while, then she went to New York. And a lot of the ideas that emerged in The Dialectic of Sex were ideas that we talked about in that group. Jo Freeman, Heather Booth, Naomi Weisstein, Evie Goldfield, Sue Munaker, Fran Rominski, who was also in CIPA. We were all activists, so we thought we should do action very fast. We should do something. But what we really wanted to do is talk, and talking was action for us.
The basic ideas of women’s liberation emerged in those little groups. In the small groups and ours started, I think in February 1967, and other groups emerged almost simultaneously all over the country. And there was one national convention where people from New York and Boston and Chicago all met. And that was really exciting. The people from New York had given a name to what we were doing: consciousness raising. They were also talking a lot about sexuality, which I don’t think we did too much in Chicago, but it was exciting to find out that there were people who were feeling, thinking, doing similar things all over the country. I think there were some ideas about having more conferences, but I don’t think they ever emerged or they ever came together.
VR: And then what did the Westside group go on to do?
AK: Well, if we worked on other groups, I think Fran and I started a group in Rogers Park. I think the most important thing we did is help organize the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union, an idea which emerged from your experience in Vietnam. Can you say a little bit about what that was?
VR: Yes. In 1967 in August, I went to a conference between American peace activists and Vietnamese from the north and South Vietnam and met women from the Vietnamese Women’s Union. And then a small group of us was invited to go to North Vietnam to witness the bombing, American bombing of the north. And when we were there, we were introduced to the Women’s Union, which is a very deliberate organizing strategy to get women engaged in community, in trainings and developing skills, in developing coops, in learning, making crafts and other things so that they could make a living and then for political representation at the village level and the provincial level and in the national level.
I never heard of such a self-conscious organizing campaign for women. And they felt like women were just so critical to the future of their country and to the ability to defeat the American war, also. So, they met with us. There were two women on our delegation and met with us separately to tell us how they organized and why they organized and how important American women were in helping them to end the war. I’ve only heard of Women’s Auxiliaries or Church Women United, which is a good group.
But, I mean, I’ve never heard that you could have a real political organization of women. And so when I got back to Chicago, I joined the Westside group, and I told everybody about this great idea. We decided to organize the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union. I think it was like April 1968, something like that. So, what do you remember? How did we do that? Do you remember?
AK: Well, of course I remember the tensions. We were afraid that women in the left would come and argue against an independent women’s organization. Naomi Weisstein and I thought we ought to do something that brought people together. And we wrote this play, and I think the script is on the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union website. It was sort of a participatory play where we did research about women’s activities throughout the world and in history. And we gave out little scripts to everybody in the audience.
And then Naomi and I pretended to be witches. And threw everything, all the things had oppressed women, into this cauldron, which then exploded. And we had gotten a smoke bomb that was much more powerful than expected. And everybody was coughing. But I think it worked. I think people felt great after that. It did bring women together and Naomi had written a really moving ending when people were yelling, “Who are you? Who are you?” And then the witches said we would be wherever women were struggling. We would be there.
VR: It was very inspiring. It was at this conference that we had to establish the organization, and this was like one of the main events at the conference. It was so moving and people felt so connected. And it kind of overrode all this political objection about forming a women’s organization.
AK: Did those women who were opposed to it, even raise it?
VR: Well, they wrote all these position papers. There were all these position papers that people wrote about the organization before the founding conference, but they didn’t prevail, partly because of the sentiment that you and Naomi expressed, and because there was just an energy amongst women. Women wanted to organize. They wanted to find each other. They wanted a voice. Who cares what the fear that you’re going to split the left or whatever. People wanted to find each other.
I have a great picture of you dressed up as a witch with a black circle around your eye and a broom. You had a big witch’s hat on. It was great.
AK: Yes, and the fact that it was sort of a historical play and brought us in contact with the history of women’s resistance, which we knew was there, but we hadn’t really explored it before. So that was one of the reasons that I got interested in women’s history, and I ended up going back to school to study women’s history, which didn’t exist really, that I had to sort of make it up as I went.
VR: How did you do that? Were you in a History Department?
AK: I went to a Masters History Department at Portland State, which is where I went after Chicago, with a year-long hiatus in San Francisco. But then I went to Portland. And, mostly I just did independent studies and found the books myself and sort of designed the classes myself. I think there was one class in women in early modern Europe. But mostly I just did independent study, independent writing. And then I tried to get people who are teaching US history to incorporate women’s experience in the US history classes. I don’t think it was very successful. I did a bibliography, and I don’t think anybody really used it. It was too early; it was in the early ’70s.
VR: Did you do your dissertation there?
AK: No, I did my Master’s thesis. I was interested in women’s consciousness. I wanted to read what women thought. And so I went to the local historical society that had a collection of women’s diaries, women who went across the plains during the 1850’s. And I wrote my master’s thesis about them. At that time, I became really interested in developing women’s studies. And there was a left academic organization called the New University Conference and a friend of mine and I convinced them to let us organize women’s studies programs on the West Coast. And we organized a conference in Santa Cruz, which I think ended up generating about 15 women’s studies programs in California.
VR: What year was that?
AK: I think in 1972 or 1973. Women’s studies programs began developing a lot because students started to demand the inclusion of women in various disciplines. And women faculty began responding to that impetus by creating women’s studies classes. The person I was working with, Lucy Moore, and I made up a little women’s studies skit about women’s invisibility in the University. And I remember there was a verse about psychology. “Women should save the human race and stay home and guard their inner space,” which was sort of a spoof on Erik Erikson, who said that women were naturally peaceful and girls would build things in circles. And therefore, women had this inner space that led them to be more peaceful. So, we made up these spoofs for every discipline. That was very exciting.
VR: After you got your Master’s degree, did you decide you wanted to be teaching women’s studies?
AK: Yes. I taught for, I guess three years, at two community colleges and Portland State University. I taught the introductory women’s studies course and also women’s history courses. And that was a lot of fun. But it was also exhausting. I had to always teach, like, five courses at a time to make enough money. So, I decided I needed to get a doctorate and find a full-time job.
VR: Today is Sunday, August 29, 2021. And this is Vivian Rothstein in Los Angeles. And I’m interviewing Amy Kesselman, who’s in New Haven, Connecticut. And this is the second page of the interview that we’re doing about Amy’s life and her activism and feminism. So, Amy, you were going to talk about your experience, why you got interested in women’s studies and women’s history. How you got interested.
AK: I think when women’s liberation first happened one of the first questions many of us asked ourselves was, did women ever feel this way before? We were so ignorant of history. I was a history major, so I trotted to the library, and also that play that we talked about last time, included a lot of women’s history. And I realized that there was a huge worldwide long history of women’s resistance. So that got me hooked, and I decided I wanted to know more and go back to school.
And I did, first as a Masters and then in a PhD program. But I also wanted to talk about one thing that happened with women’s liberation is I think about 1969 or 1970, women’s liberation groups all over the country started thinking about the taboos that we had experienced about having sexual relations with other women. So for most of us, for many of us, our deepest, most emotional connection was with other women. But we stopped short of any physical expression of that.
And so, we did talk about that in the Westside group, and I remember coming back on the “EL” [the elevated train] after we had this discussion. And Fran, who was my roommate at the time, and I sat on the opposite sides of the train looking nervously at each other. And so then we did become lovers. Although it was hard to transfer a friendship based on our respect for each other’s independence into a romantic relationship. So it didn’t really last. But I will come back to this because this is one of the things I explored in my scholarship.
VR: What was your experience in women’s studies in Portland?
AK: There wasn’t much women’s history in the University, at Portland State where I got my Masters. I did a lot of independent study and participated in the women’s studies program at Portland. One thing I’m not sure we talked about was I had been working with another woman, Lucy Moore. We had been organizing women’s studies programs and we organized this conference at Santa Cruz. And I think from that conference a whole lot of women’s studies programs were born. It was the most successful thing we did.
VR: Could you explain what happened at the conference and who came?
AK: A huge number of women came from all over California. I guess I was still living in California, and we had workshops on various things. I don’t remember all the details, but I do remember a sense of excitement and the fact that women in various colleges got together and planned to start women’s studies programs in their colleges. Then I moved to Portland, partly because Fran wanted to live in the country, and we were trying to find a way for her to live in the country and me to live in the city.
And it was hard to do in San Francisco, so we moved to Portland. And then shortly thereafter we broke up. After I got a master’s degree, I was teaching like five courses a semester in various colleges, and I was exhausted. And my ambition at the time was to take a sabbatical. I wanted a full-time job so I could take a break from it, because there was no space to do that when I was teaching part-time. So I went to Cornell, which was not a good choice because it was very isolated and there weren’t very many people who were my age.
Most of the students were in their early twenties, and I was in my thirties and the college was isolated. There wasn’t any connection to a city, really. And the woman I was supposed to study with was not a great advisor. I decided that I didn’t want to write my dissertation in isolation. I went back to Portland, got together with another group of women to interview women shipyard workers in Portland. And when I was teaching in Portland, I had given an assignment about interviewing one’s mothers and grandmothers and a whole bunch of students interviewed these women who had been workers in the shipyards in Portland during World War II.
I and a group of us realized that now is the time to interview these women. But we weren’t going to have much longer. So we formed an organization and we wrote a grant and we interviewed. We put one little notice in the Oregonian, saying that we wanted to interview women who worked in the shipyard, and we got 200 phone calls.
The women said: “I thought nobody would ever talk to me about this. It was the most important experience of my life and nobody ever asked me about it.” We couldn’t interview them all. But we interviewed 30 and we got a grant to make a slide show, which we made, and it was called Good Work, Sister. And since then, it was made into a video and then a DVD.
VR: And your dissertation that you did on pioneer women, do you want to say something about that?
AK: That was my master’s thesis. Well, I wanted to write about women’s consciousness, and I think that’s because my consciousness, our consciousness, had changed so much and I didn’t want to read about the effect of various things on women. I wanted to read about what women thought and felt themselves and the best resource for that was women who wrote diaries who were going across the country with their husbands, mostly to Oregon on the Overland Trail in the 1850’s. I wrote about them as part of my master’s thesis.
They were not enthusiastic about this venture. Moving away. It was very important to them to have their relationships with their women and their families and their women friends. And they were leaving all that behind. And there was one woman who stopped in the middle and said she wouldn’t go any further. I think she eventually did. For most of them they were not excited about doing this. And one of the women gave birth in the middle of the trip. I think they managed to stop the wagons while she was doing it.
I was thinking about that and about the Afghan women who gave birth on the plane. What that must have been like. Anyway, so that’s mainly what I was capturing. Women always counted all of the graves that they saw on the side of the road. They were very resistant to the whole thing. They tried as much as they could to recreate some context in which they could have other people around them, other women. So as soon as they landed, they worked on creating schools and churches.
VR: After interviewing the shipbuilders, did you go back to Cornell or what did you do then?
AK: I went back for a brief period and then the women’s studies program at New Paltz was looking for a women’s studies faculty member. And I was not finished with my dissertation. But I was really interested in that job for a number of reasons. I wanted to come back east. My sister had gotten cancer a year before, and I wanted to be closer to my parents. I interviewed for the job, and they hired me. And I think that one of the main reasons they hired me is because of my engagement with women’s liberation.
This was in 1981. It was a four-year college. It has some Masters programs, but no PhD programs. They had at the time, tried to create a kind of a movement atmosphere. They had a steering committee that included faculty and staff and students. So I felt like I fit in. And it was very exciting to be there. But during this period, the administration was kind of hostile to those very aspects of women’s studies that attracted me. The connections with a movement, the political connections. And the President, who was a woman herself, I think the only woman President of a state university at the time.
VR: The only woman who was President of a state university in New York or anywhere?
AK: Yes, in New York. She was trying very hard to change the women’s studies program. And she tried to get rid of our coordinator because she blamed the coordinator for creating what she called a “hippie atmosphere.” She said, “You look like the conferences where all these women were wearing Birkenstocks.” Anyway, she was on a campaign to get rid of the coordinator at the time.
And eventually she did. And we had a series of coordinators, some of whom were really committed to the president’s mission, which was to reshape women’s studies into a more institutional form. It meant that there were a lot of struggles that went on during the whole time. Finally, I think we were able to hire another full-time person. But teaching in the 1980’s was difficult anyway because it was a really reactionary period. And women’s studies was really struggling. The enthusiasm that had buoyed women’s studies in the ’70s was waning.
And there were like three students in the feminist organization on campus at the time. It was a really hard time for politics in general, for radical politics in general. And then, I think sort of in the late ’90s there began to be interest again, in feminism and women’s studies.
Finally, we got connected with other programs so that we were hiring people who were part time in women studies and part time in other departments. This was a group of people who had two connections. During that time, I started feeling that these new faculty members were much more institutionally oriented and wanting to fit in to the institutions. And I think that sort of continued through the ’90s and the early 2000’s. And it was a constant struggle to try to sustain a political perspective and an activist perspective.
VR: Did you feel students were changing in what they were looking for?
AK: I can’t remember exactly when feminism began to be rekindled, but the students were really looking for feminist activism and feminist literature and history. And we had one introductory course, which was called Women, Images, and Realities – [it] was one of the ways that students could fulfill a part of the general education program. And it became very popular. And it was an organizing course really. Students felt like their lives were changed by it. One of the things I was going to talk about was the way women’s liberation or feminism affected my scholarship.
And one of the things that I did was help to edit or create a textbook for the introductory women’s studies course, because there wasn’t really very much at the time. And in that textbook, we kind of recreated the consciousness raising experience. The first section of the textbook was about personal life. And then we moved to political and social change. And that book was very popular for three, four editions. But then, I guess in the 2000’s, people in women’s studies were looking for different kinds of literature, and they were interested much more in theory.
And I felt a tension in my program about that. There were people in my program who were very critical of our course, critical of the book. They wanted it to be more theoretical. So by the time I left, I retired in 2012, I was feeling like I didn’t belong there anymore.
VR: Was women’s studies a department?
AK: For a long time, it was a program, and being a program, we were able to have people from other departments teaching in the program. And that gave us that kind of flexibility. But I think in the last couple years, the last year I was there, it became a department. And that was sort of part of its movement towards a more institutional presence.
VR: I always thought that women’s studies was a victim of its own success. That women were now becoming professors of women’s studies. And they wanted to be able to compete in the academic world and that it seemed to become more academic and less connected to the community and social change.
AK: Yes. Absolutely. Well said. Yes.
VR: Because even the words that were used sometimes, I would read stuff from women’s studies. I didn’t understand what the words meant. I can’t remember what they are now.
AK: Actually, Ann Fines just forwarded to me a call for papers from a women’s studies program, and it was all gobbly-gook. It was all these made-up words which means they can’t communicate with anybody outside their rarified academic environment. So, yes, it’s gotten very academic and theoretical. And I’m activist oriented.
VR: I remember the program was under attack politically a number of times. Do you want to describe one or two of those?
AK: Yes. The biggest conflagration was in 1997, when we had a conference on sexuality and it was a time the right wing was on a campaign to get control of college boards, college trustees, and Pataki had become the governor with the help of some very right-wing organizations. And he appointed these right-wing people to the board of trustees of the state university. And they went after our program. They didn’t like our new President at the time, who was a Liberal and the Conference on Sexuality gave them an opportunity to attack us.
And for a year, we were dealing with all of this news coverage and various kinds of political intrigues that were going on. And it was very difficult. I learned more about the right wing than I ever wanted to know. Alisa Solomon of the Village Voice did a really wonderful investigative article about the conference and this connection to the right wing and the network of right-wing organizations. I’ll put a link on that on my archive.
VR: Great. Was there an outcome from that? Was the program weakened or strengthened or left the way it was?
AK: I think they succeeded in getting rid of the President, unfortunately. Because he supported us. And I don’t know what the other outcomes were. We had a lot of conferences on academic freedom after that, because there were a lot of people who felt like women’s studies had dragged the University into this trap of the right wing. And some faculty felt that if we hadn’t been such bad girls, we wouldn’t have attracted the right-wing attack on our conference, on our college. So the next year we had a conference devoted to resistance. And there was a lot of interest and a lot of people wanted to support us.
VR: When you think of the women or the students in general who went through the program while you were there, you were there 31 years, right? What did they go on to do? What was the impact on them do you think? Why did they want to come to women’s studies?
AK: Well, they felt like their lives were changed by women’s studies, and a lot of them went on to activities in women’s health. One of them became the director of Women’s Health of the campus health center at another college. I haven’t been in touch with too many of them, but a lot of them have tried to do work in feminism in various ways.
VR: It is Sunday, September 9, 2021. And my name is Vivian Rothstein, and I’m interviewing Amy Kesselman, who is in New Haven, Connecticut. And this is our interview number three. And we’re going to start by Amy talking a bit about how her feminism and her feminist activism influenced her scholarship and her academic interests.
AK: One of the first things I worked on after moving to New Paltz, was the dress reform movement. Partly because one of the leaders of this movement was located in Middletown, New York, which is only about 20 miles from New Paltz. I worked on that and published something called The Freedom Suit. I’ll link to that, too. But the focus of that research very much reflected the ways I had thought about our movement, the women’s liberation movement, because there was a huge tension between the leaders of the dress reform movement in the 1850s, who believed that change started with the individual, and the women’s rights people who felt we had to build a mass movement first, and then we could make changes.
And this is a recurring motif in the history of women’s feminism. What’s interesting is I’ve noticed lately that people do cite me, but when they cite me, they don’t cite that issue, which is a central issue of that article. But that tension, the personal versus the political strategy was so important to us. And I think it’s important. People don’t think about that so much anymore.
VR: Would you explain what the dress reform movement was? And when it was.
AK: This was in the 1850’s and people might know of the dress reform movement as the bloomers. Because one of the first ways it got publicized was on Amelia Bloomer’s newspaper; there was a photo of her wearing it. It was a long skirt and a sort of a jacket. The skirt wasn’t that long. It just went down to the knees and no corset. And it was, in fact, very freeing, because at the time, women’s fashion was incredibly awful. Corsets, crinolines that were so wide that you could hardly get through doorways.
This made it a big difference. And the women’s rights people, with Katie Stanton and Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone adopted it for a while. But then they said, well, in Susan B. Anthony words, “My audiences were focused on my ankles more than my words.” So one by one, they gave it up. And there was a constant tension between the two groups. The dress reform people felt very strongly that people should dress for health and comfort, and that if they did that, other people would join them.
And the women’s rights people felt that was naive, that people were not going to challenge the prevailing ideas of fashion until they had a movement to support them. So that was the tension.
VR: I totally agree that this issue between personal transformation and transformation of the society is a tension to this day right now, around confronting racism. Is it important for people to excise racism from their day-to-day life and their thoughts and their perspectives? Or is it more important to be organizing on the streets building coalitions? I mean, there is a tension in terms of resources and time and what is going to make the change.
AK: That’s right.
VR: And environmental issues and in every issue.
AK: Environmental issues is very clear. If you personally live in harmony with the environment, that’s making a difference. Meanwhile, there has been, well, I think there has been a movement, but, yeah, it’s been a tension. I and two of my colleagues decided that since all of us had taught the introductory women’s studies course, and there was very little material for us to use, particularly if we wanted to be multiracial and multicultural, we had to create our own textbooks.
We decided to write a textbook, and we called it the same thing we called the introductory Women’s Studies course at New Paltz: Women, Images and Realities. And we got a contract. And this is the first edition, and it was very successful. It was the most used text in women’s studies courses for a very long time. And then it was originally published by a small publisher, but then McGraw-Hill bought it out. And the next three editions were published by McGraw-Hill. We revised them every two years and made a point of including as many different groups of women as possible.
And the way this reflected my women’s liberation experience is that the course and the book start with women’s personal experience, the way consciousness raising did. And it then looks at the institutions that affect women’s personal experiences and then ends with individual and social change. It tries to mirror the kind of transformation that individual women went through in the women’s movement.
VR: So you wanted your students to go through that journey too?
AK: Right. And our students did. They described the course as transformative. Many of them became women’s studies majors, but they all talk about that course as changing their lives. The way we organized it was important in that sense.
VR: So when the idea of women’s studies started, it started outside of the University, really and it was brought into the University, right? The idea that we should learn about our history. Wasn’t there pressure on universities to give opportunities for women to learn about women’s history?
AK: Well, mostly it was individuals or groups of faculty members who got together and began teaching courses in their disciplines, women and literature, women and history, and then it’s different in each place. But they combined to organize an introductory course. Sometimes at some places, it started with faculty. Other places, it started with students making demands. “We want to learn about our lives, not just men.” And so it drew from that movement within the University.
VR: And then it changed the University because the universities had to hire women to teach these classes, right? Did it give women more of a status within the University?
AK: No, it really did not. And they didn’t hire women for a very, very long time. They did not hire women to teach these courses. It was mostly women who were teaching other courses who developed the women’s studies courses themselves and taught them.
VR: Did it give them a higher profile? Did it give them more status in the University?
AK: No. It gave them less status, because the university was not particularly hospitable to women’s studies, and they didn’t think that women’s studies was a legitimate focus of scholarship or teaching. It actually took some courage for women, particularly if they were not tenured, to teach these courses that were not really considered mainstream courses. They were sort of taking a risk.
And for a while, these kinds of activities didn’t count in tenure decisions because they were not really valued. So no, women’s studies did not work to the advantage of individual women at first. Only in the past five years, they have started hiring women in women’s studies programs. And some women are jointly appointed in a Department and a women’s studies program. It took a long time.
VR: When did you get your job at New Paltz?
VR: And you were hired into the History Department?
AK: No, I was hired as the one faculty member in the women’s studies program. And there was always an intention of getting more faculty in the women’s studies program. But we fought and fought and fought. And were not successful in that. And finally, we switched to getting these joint appointments so that we would work with another Department to hire somebody who taught in both departments, which was double work for the faculty member, double meetings – wasn’t ideal, really.
VR: And what’s happened now? What was the arc? It started out as the students wanted it, but the institution was not really interested and didn’t give it kind of official acknowledgment. What’s the arc been?
AK: I will give you an example from Yale in the early 1970s, which I was working on. They were trying to get a course in women’s history at Yale. And when a couple of them approached an American historian, he said, “History of women, that would be like teaching the history of dogs.” So that was the kind of attitude. I mean, he was a little crazy, but that was the attitude. They didn’t really think that there was any point in the women’s experience. So that was the hostility in the institutions and then sort of grudging recognition of women’s studies scholarship and teaching.
And now I think women’s studies has become more institutionalized, which has, in my view, both positive and negative aspects. Positive because it enables people to get credit for the teaching they’re doing and be more visible within the institution. But negative in that it has become separated from the feminist movement. For example, the people in our program have stopped using our book because it’s focused on women’s experience rather than theoretical. And they have become much more theoretical and I doubt that women students feel the kind of transformation that they did when they used our book. So that’s both positive and negative.
VR: Right. So it seems like your research is a lot about movement building.
AK: Exactly. In the 1990’s I was noticing that the work that had been done about feminism didn’t really include women’s liberation, because women’s liberation was so decentralized. I decided that I should focus on a local community and demonstrate the way a women’s liberation movement came together and the way it changed and grew. And so that’s when I decided since I spend a lot of time in New Haven, I decided to do the history of the women’s liberation movement in New Haven. And I started out with an article that I think you helped me on, Vivian, which was women’s liberation on the left. Because at the time there were these guys, Todd Gitlin and Michael Tomasky, who were blaming the women’s movement for destroying the left.
So I wrote an article that demonstrated that women’s liberation, in fact, thought of themselves as part of a left. But the males of the left didn’t think of the issues that we were raising, like reproductive rights, should be incorporated in the left movement. So it really was the male dominated left that made it difficult to incorporate women’s liberation in a movement that was wide ranging and inclusive. So that was the first chapter.
And then since Yale had played such an important role in this community, I did a chapter on how the 1970s admission of women at Yale intersected with the development of feminism at the time, and then, New Haven was the site of a very nationally known trial of several Black Panther activists. And because the FBI was trying to destroy the Black Panther party, and they were using various methods of doing so. And they arrested nine members of the Black Panther Party. Most of them were released. But the one member who was kept in jail for two years without even a trial was Ericka Huggins. And so I wrote about the women Panthers, about women’s liberation supporting them at a demonstration “Free our sisters, free ourselves.”
And I wrote about their experience in prison and the trial, which was a really interesting trial and ended up with a hung jury. So that was the third chapter. And then the next chapter was about women and reproductive rights. And sadly, it was about this organization calling themselves Women Versus Connecticut. And they used a lawsuit as an organizing technique. Eventually, they got 2,000 named plaintiffs claiming that the abortion law negatively affected their lives. And it was an amazing movement that they built. And it affected the opinions that were drafted by the judges.
The first time they went to court, which was 1971 I think, they won. There were three judges, and the majority said that the abortion law is unconstitutional. But the governor at the time was a devout Catholic, and he also controlled the legislature completely. And as a result, he managed to get through the legislature a new abortion law. This one was focused on preserving the life of the fetus. And they had to do this all over again. Actually, the women’s group was happy because they got to testify in court about women’s experience.
But the State’s Attorney, and I think this is interesting today, focused on trying to act secular, even though they mostly brought in Catholic witnesses. But they were focusing on when life began and they had a Guardian Ad Litem for the fetus in the courtroom all the time. And when you read the transcripts, it’s like they were working on two entirely different levels. Anyway, the same three judge court declared the second law unconstitutional as well.
Harry Blackmun, who wrote the majority opinion in Roe, looked at all of the lower courts’ decisions and the decision in the Connecticut case, which was called Abele vs. Markle. Abele was the name of the first plaintiff. Markle was the attorney general. The transcripts of the Abele court were full of the descriptions of how the abortion law harmed women. And a lot of those descriptions went into Harry Blackmun’s opinion.
VR: I didn’t know that. That is wonderful. That just shows the generational kind of impact of good organizing, bringing people’s stories right into the political arena.
AK: Yes. There’s this woman at Smith who got some reproductive justice activists together, and they decided they wanted to create a website called Roots of Reproductive Justice. And they enlisted historians who have written about past movements, and they’re putting them on the website. So I wrote about this group and they’re going to use this as a resource.
VR: You’re a unique kind of historian that actually shows that there are lessons we can learn about social change from looking at what was effective in the past and what wasn’t and what divided activists. That’s great. That’s really wonderful. Well, is there anything else you want to say about how you would describe your research, like values, for other women who are historians that might give them ideas about how to choose their topics.
AK: I had very much chosen my topics in terms of what’s going on in the world today. And I think there are more historians who are starting to do that, although there’s so much pressure on graduate students to do what’s acceptable in institutions, that it’s hard for them to move into a more activist history domain. But I think there are historians who are doing that.
VR: What do you think a historian should think about or look for in a topic?
AK: I think the importance of organizing can be demonstrated by history, organizing in a variety of ways. Sources right now are sort of in flux in that now people have access to all these internet sources, that it’s possible to get closer to women’s experience by connecting with some of these feminist sites and various internet networks. I think that’s exciting.
VR: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
AK: I don’t remember if I talked about this in earlier interviews, but one thing that I thought has been really misunderstood has been the experience of lesbians in the women’s movement. And often the way it has been presented is that the women’s movement discriminated against lesbians and lesbians came out and challenged the women’s movement. But in fact, in terms of the women’s liberation movement, women’s liberation made thinking about lesbianism possible. That we can make these kinds of choices about our lives and that experience has been obscured, I think.
That was my experience, women’s liberation made it possible for me to think about my deepest relationships with friends in a sexual way. And I think it was an experience that a lot of women in my cohort of women’s liberation had. And it’s very hard to get that across, partly because the gay rights movement has focused on or has emphasized that one can’t make choices. That you’re born gay, and therefore you can’t change, because the anti-gay movement has focused on change: you can change; they say you can come back to become heterosexual.
So the gay rights movement has taken the opposite position. And there is a part of this book that I’m working on, that talks about that. I interviewed a bunch of women about their experiences, and I tried to show the way women’s liberation enabled people to change their sexuality. And that seems like a kind of taboo way of thinking, to a great extent.
VR: But it’s so current in the debates and discussions about the multiplicity of people’s sexuality. It’s so relevant today, and it’s interesting that you see the notion that homosexuality is inborn as coming from a political imperative to counteract homophobic attitudes. And that’s really interesting.
AK: I got a contract to write this book, which was about five different, somewhat loosely related stories. But the publisher really didn’t like that. I struggled with the publisher over and over again. They wanted a more integrated work, and I didn’t really want to do that because I was not covering all aspects of women’s activism and I didn’t want the book to look like it was pretending to do that. So we struggled and struggled.
And finally, we broke the contract. So now I’m going to self-publish, which I think you might have turned me on to this, Lulu Press. And I went there and it turned out that they had a particular part of their enterprise devoted to academics. It’s called Glasstree. So these are academics who had tenure already and don’t have to worry about publishing in an established publishing house. So I think I’m going to go with Glasstree. But I got sidetracked by the Reproductive Justice project, but when I finish that, I’ll go back to the book.
VR: And do you have any thoughts once the book is published, on other topics that you think you would like to address your attention to?
AK: Yes. I want to write about generational interaction. There were several lawyers in this reproductive rights group. But the major lawyer’s name was Catherine Roraback, and she was just a phenomenal woman who was responsible for a lot of women becoming lawyers because they saw how she was able to use the law as a tool of social justice. I interviewed her and she was amazing.
She died in I think 2001. I’m not sure. Anyway, she was a fantastic person. And she describes getting highly influenced by these women at Mount Holyoke College, where she went to school in the 1930s and 1940s. And these women were part of a loose network that called themselves social justice feminists. The woman who had the most effect on Katie and others was Amy Hewes. She was an economist, but she used her courses as a way of introducing students to the world. These were privileged students, mostly. She took them to the mill town nearby and used them to work on statistics, for the state minimum wage law that they put forth, and was finally actually adopted by Massachusetts.
She had an enormous influence on Katie. And as Katie worked with various organizations, she included the insights of these earlier social justice feminists in her work. And she also was among the few women in this area of her generation who really got involved in women’s liberation and second way feminism, which for her, was an incredibly transforming experience. It was painful in some ways. She described it as tearing a Band-Aid off a scar or a wound to think of all the ways she had to masquerade in so many ways to be a woman in the male dominated field of law. So, I want to write about this sort of three generation perspective through Katie’s life.
VR: That’s a great topic. And there’s a lot of women lawyers now who would probably be interested. Well, are there any last thoughts that you would like to add?
AK: I think it’s great that they’re doing this project, and am happy to be part of it.