THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“The stories have to be told in various ways of women’s experiences over these years that we have lived.”
Interviewed by Vivian Rothstein, October 2021
VR: My name is Vivian Rothstein. I’m in Los Angeles, California, and I’m interviewing Ann Froines, who is in New Haven, Connecticut. Ann and I have been longtime friends, and she has a fascinating history of involvement in political and feminist issues over many years. Ann, please tell me something about the family that you were born into and when and where you were born and where you grew up and anything else you’d like to say about your childhood.
AF: Thanks, Vivian. I was born in Chicago. I grew up in Chicago. I grew up in an old left family. My dad was a union organizer and worked in various electronic and electrical supply plants during most of my young years. My parents had met in the American student movement of the late 1930’s at the University of Illinois campus, and they had been radicalized and involved in political activities in the ’30’s as a result of the Depression and then the war against fascism in Europe. And those were their sort of galvanizing issues.
I have to say from the outset, I was raised with the idea of activism for social justice and a bit of a global world view because as former members of the American Communist Party, my parents had talked to me about the Cold War and some of the global history of the 20th century that was important in their lives. Interestingly enough, my father was actually born in Cuba. My maiden name is Rubio, and his father was a Cuban who met my grandmother in the United States, and they married and went back to live in Cuba.
But my dad came back to the United States when he was pretty small, around age 3. And my grandparents stayed in the United States from then on. That would have been about 1920. We’re not talking about the exodus after the Cuban Revolution. One of the things my parents also modeled in their lives was an actual commitment to being involved with people of other races. They were part of the 1950’s version of civil rights, which was, in their case, a commitment to participate in the Warren Avenue Congregational Church, which was on the west side of Chicago not far from where we lived, and it was a multiracial church.
There was a white Minister, an African American Minister, and a Spanish speaking Minister because there were substantial numbers of people from Mexico who lived in Chicago back as early as the 1950’s. I remember going to a lot of activities at that church. I was baptized at the age of 14 in that Congregational Church, and I mention it because it forms a part of an arc in my life, which connects me with various social movements. Because later on in the 1960’s, the Warren Avenue Congregational Church was the base of Martin Luther King when he came to Chicago to work on neighborhood integration issues and demonstrations. So that church was an important part of what turned out to be a rather dismal history of trying to create integrated neighborhoods on Chicago’s West Side.
I went to Austin High School. Austin is the westernmost neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. I wasn’t really an activist in high school. I had participated at different ages in some things with my parents, but I was not an independent teenage radical activist. I was very active in student organizations. For example, I wrote a column in our weekly neighborhood newspaper, The Austin Angles, about what was going on in the high school that people in the community might be interested in. One of my activities was to be an editor on the high school newspaper, The Austin Times.
VR: What kind of values or perspective on gender and women’s engagement in the larger culture did you get from your parents? What kind of messages did your parents give you about that?
AF: ( I’d say ) (I saw) a lot in my family through modeling, consciously and unconsciously. My mother had been a college graduate, and she also tried organizing in factories for a couple of years in the ’50s as part of her commitment to creating a better society and didn’t find that very fulfilling for her, or perhaps she didn’t find she was successful at it. And we’re talking during the McCarthy period here. I should mention McCarthyism, as it was an awareness we very much had and it actually affected our lives and the lives of other left wingers in Chicago.
I’ll say something about that and then get back to the gender question. My dad lost his job several times during the ’50s, particularly the early ’50s, because the FBI would show up at the plants he was working at and sometimes working to organize unions at, and then he would be fired. It was as simple as that. Especially if the plant had any federal contracts. For two years we actually went and lived with my maternal grandmother in Evanston to go to school because my father was unemployed and driving a cab, and my mother was working full-time.
I was eight, and my sister was four, and there wasn’t much in the way of child care that was affordable in those days. We actually lived with my grandmother, and I went to school in Evanston for two years. When my sister was old enough to go to public school in Chicago, we returned to live with my parents.
While in Evanston, we saw my parents every weekend. It was workable. But I want to mention I had two grandmothers who were active a bit in their own ways. My mother’s mother had been a Minister’s daughter, and she had been active in women’s suffrage as a college student herself. She had gone to college. Not many people can say that about their grandmothers, but she had gone to college, and then my father’s mother became radicalized also in the ’30s, and she had been an active person and had actually been persecuted and prosecuted by the State of Ohio’s Un-American Activities Committee.
I grew up knowing about some of the costs of being politically active as well as the benefits. But I did have these three strong women in my life. And while I didn’t ever even use the term gender, I was certainly raised to believe that I would be getting higher education and going on and participating in some full way in society. That’s how I felt.
VR: I just want to share this image I have of visiting you in Somerville in the 1990’s when you lived in a three-story apartment building, and at the top was your grandmother who was in her 90’s at the time who would work on her Exercycle while reading the Daily World newspaper, and then you with your daughter I believe at that time living in the middle flat, and then your parents downstairs and your dad going to Communist Party meetings and dragging his mother sometimes along, and just the layers of politics in that house, the history of American politics.
AF: Actually, my dad wasn’t going to CP meetings at that time. He still read some of the literature. He was very active in senior things in Massachusetts. He became president of the Massachusetts Silver Haired Legislature and worked on a hearing aid bill in Massachusetts and that kind of thing. And my grandmother was doing volunteer work for peace groups at that point.
VR: I love that image. Like if you could slice that building and just see all three flats at the same time, everybody engaged and active and thinking about social justice.
AF: That’s the kind of upbringing I had. I’ve talked with other friends about this, where you either become an activist yourself or you’re revolted by all that activism and you go off and become a farmer or an artist or something like that.
VR: Since you took the activist route, what was the path you took in getting involved yourself in social justice issues? And what did your involvement look like in your early years?
AF: It really began when I was in college. I went off to college when I was 18. I went to Swarthmore College in 1960. It was the very beginning of college activism around ‘59 and ’60, all over the country, actually, largely as a result of the American Civil rights movement and also the John F. Kennedy campaign. I think the first demonstration I ever went to in the fall of 1960 was at a Kennedy rally. Some of us from Swarthmore went with signs demanding an end to above ground nuclear testing, which at that time was an important issue because of the fear of Strontium-90 affecting women’s breast milk.
And it was generally a concern from some of the peace groups that already existed. And that was the first demonstration I went on as an independent young adult. And there was formed, I believe in my freshman year, the Swarthmore Political Action Committee. It may have already existed. I’m not 100% sure about that. But there was this influx of students that year who really joined up in numbers and began talking among themselves about these issues having to do with nuclear testing and nuclear war. The House Un-American Activities Committee was still operating in California and some other places and getting a lot of publicity. We were discussing that. And we were also beginning to discuss civil rights. So that was sort of my initial involvement.
VR: Why did you get involved? Did you feel like this was something you had to do? Or you were finding people whose attitudes were familiar to you? What was the draw?
AF: I had been concerned about these issues. I just hadn’t participated in any high school groups. We didn’t have any high school groups about issues having to do with politics. So yes, I was actively looking for like-minded people when I went to college, and because most of my courses in my freshman year were largely introductory courses. I was starting out on a premed track, so I had science courses, and most of my freshman year I spent studying, and coping with the demands of that coursework. But that was what I felt that I was looking for with these like-minded people. And we were discussing various topics. It was kind of a discussion group/action group in its first years.
VR: How did you happen to go to Swarthmore? What was Swarthmore like?
AF: It’s a small, coed liberal arts college southwest of Philadelphia. And I knew about Swarthmore because my mother had attended Swarthmore. That was one of the reasons I applied there. The other place I was interested in going to was the University of Chicago, which was on the south side of my own city and in the neighborhood that my paternal grandmother lived. When it came down to choosing between the two, I decided I wanted to have new horizons and move to another city, so I chose Swarthmore. That’s how it happened.
Swarthmore had a number of young members of my class who were from New York and New Jersey, and it seemed to me that the ones from New York and New Jersey were more represented in these radical groups than students from the Midwest. Later, we heard that the Swarthmore admissions office had a quota in mind for not accepting too many Jewish students because they tended to be radical. I am not Jewish, but a lot of the people who were active in Swarthmore politics were Jewish, and so some of them may have thought that was going on. I don’t know. Or it may have just been the same issue with Asian American students sometimes feel discriminated against because they are high-achieving high school students and not admitted proportionately.
VR: What about around race? Was it a diverse student body?
AF: No, it was not a diverse student body. I believe there was possibly one African American female student in my class of close to 250 students. There were one or two others, young men, that I was aware of, at least one of whom was a student who had come from Africa. Swarthmore is very different now in that respect. Like many schools, it’s doing much better at having more of a cross section of students. And it’s a fairly well-endowed liberal arts college, so it’s able to, I believe, make need-blind decisions.
VR: When you graduated from Swarthmore, what was your intention? What did you think you were going to do with your life?
AF: I just talked about my first involvement. There was later involvement of a considerable intensity. During the summer, a small number of Swarthmore students went to the south to participate in the Mississippi Freedom Rides. I always had a summer job during college. I had a small scholarship, but my parents were paying for my education, and they were both working full time and it was expensive. So, I didn’t take summers off.
But in my junior and senior year, there were some on-campus groups active in civil rights, and I got involved. We participated in sit-ins on the Eastern shore of Maryland, in Cambridge, Maryland. But most importantly, we got involved. The Swarthmore Political Action Committee got involved in the nearby city of Chester, Pennsylvania. Chester was a completely segregated city with totally segregated schools in 1963, and nothing had happened in Chester since Brown vs Board of Education. There had been no change. And there were African American parents organizing in the Chester schools and demanding changes in the schools. In particular, the schools where black students went were deteriorating relative to those in white neighborhoods.
That was a source of their aggravation as much as the segregation. We found out about these parents organizing, and we began to participate in that movement in supportive ways. They organized a school boycott to bring more attention to their demands. And we students helped set up what we called a freedom school in places like churches where parents could drop off their children if they were working in order to respond to the demand of the boycott – which was to keep their children out of the schools until they did something about that. It ended up that in order to maintain this boycott, a sit-in of civil disobedience was really needed because the police intervened and they were letting people into the schools and so on.
Somewhere between 80 and 100 Swarthmore students, I think, or at least dozens, were participating in the sit-in and were arrested one November afternoon, and I was one of them, and we were all hauled off for an overnight experience in jail. The men went to the local Chester jail. But there was no accommodation for women in the local jail and there were a lot of women students in the group. They sent us to the closest state prison for overnight and that was an eye opener.
It was extremely uncomfortable, kind of ironic in a way, because as you might expect, the majority of women in that prison were women of color. And the way women’s state prisons were run then and probably are still run now is that they do all the work. They do the cooking, they do the washing up, they wash the sheets, that kind of thing. There was this influx of white middle class students that they had to accommodate, and they were very resentful about it, about having to do the extra work and not understanding what was going on. And it was extremely uncomfortable, given our goals of fighting for racial justice.
We came up against the reality of institutionalized racism in the United States in one night. They released us. Professors had to band together and put up some kind of cash bail. But it was all resolved pretty quickly without any indictments or anything like that. But I have to say that the Swarthmore administration was not pleased and called us in. Swarthmore, even though it’s a Quaker College, at that time had no experience with students taking direct action and getting arrested. With the exception of one or two professors speaking out and supporting us, there was a lot of reluctance on the part of the administration about what had happened.
VR: Were you trained in civil disobedience by any civil rights leaders or pastors or anything?
AF: There were people in our group in SPAC and there were civil rights people. The NAACP was really the sponsor of this demonstration. And there was another local leader, Stanley Branch was his name, and he had started a somewhat more radical version of the NAACP in Chester that was working on this, more of a direct action. There were people around who had had experience in sit-ins. It was decided, we sat down, people knew not to be violent. We were not mistreated. We just stood up and were put in buses and taken away.
VR: How did your parents feel about it?
AF: They were supportive, definitely. I don’t know how they would have felt if we’d been expelled. We had that feeling of what’s always been called white skin privilege. I mean, somehow, we were supporters and we would be able to do this with fewer repercussions. And we did get off very lightly. And we did stay involved in Chester for the rest of the year, some people more than others. But it wasn’t just a one-time thing. And eventually it did lead to some changes in the Chester school system. But it was a long struggle for the parents.
VR: Was there any other notable experience you had as an activist in college, or were you already thinking about the future and your next steps?
AF: That was the most important one. I should also mention Paul Booth, a noted activist, was a member of my class at Swarthmore. And several of the people at Swarthmore were among the founders of SDS and went to the meetings in Michigan. And so along with the Swarthmore political action group, we had an SDS chapter at Swarthmore in my junior and senior year. And the people kind of overlapped in the two groups. But there were some differences at the same time.
When I graduated, I identified with Students for a Democratic Society. I thought, this is the student movement I know about. The one I’ve been involved in directly and indirectly. I’m talking 1964. I considered myself a new left person as opposed to my parents’ generation, the old left. That was my political identity. As far as awareness about my identity as a woman, it was limited. I was aware that the leaders of our organizations, political organizations, the editors of our college newspaper, all of these people were men, and women were working with them, but almost always in subsidiary positions.
I was vaguely aware of that, but I wouldn’t say I was angry about it at this point. At this stage of my life, it’s hard to separate what I was doing politically from my parallel kind of career goals that I had. My decision was to pursue medical school. But I discovered upon graduation that the medical school that I was most likely to be admitted to and could afford was the University of Illinois Medical School where I was a resident, and I discovered that they required a lot more science courses than I had actually taken as an undergraduate. I had taken a number of them, but my major was history. I enrolled at the University of Illinois in Chicago to take practically a full-time load.
I took about seven courses in my year after Swarthmore and I lived at home. I had a couple of part-time jobs and I was studying science. I was taking chemistry and biology, advanced biology courses, physics, getting ready to go to medical school. I was not that active that year. It was really an interlude to focusing on the objective of getting admitted to medical school.
I guess the most significant action I took that year was that I went to the 1965 march in Washington that SDS organized against the War in Vietnam. I just got on the bus that they rented and went. I didn’t actually have any pals I was going with. But once you get on a bus going to a demonstration, you meet people and you start talking. And I think that was a demonstration where the then President of SDS said, we must name the system.
We must name the system, organize and change it or something like that. It was part of my further development, I guess, and sort of the broad thing of New Left ideology and thinking about U.S. foreign policy and military policy and our role in the world, not just looking at issues that we considered local or domestic issues. About that same time that spring and summer, I was in touch with an old friend of mine I knew from before, John Wilhelm, who was involved in a community organizing project in New Haven run by a branch of SDS called the Economic Research and Action Project.
I was waiting to hear about medical school. I committed that spring to go to New Haven to work in that ERAP project. I was obviously of two minds. Looking back, I realized that and I knew that at the time – do I want to follow this sort of ambitious career goal I have or do I want to go off to do some community organizing? Because a number of my other acquaintances in SDS were doing that, I went off. And ultimately, even though I was admitted to the University of Illinois medical school, I decided not to go. I also met John Froines in that project. He was a Yale graduate student at that time, and he was involved in that ERAP project in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven.
What ended up happening was that next year John and I married. I got a couple of jobs in New Haven. We stayed tangentially involved with that organizing project. It wasn’t a very successful one. I would say we knew that at the time. We didn’t really have good roots in that community. Even though there was one black student involved in it, it was very much white middle-class students organizing in the black community, and we weren’t able to build anything there that was lasting. And there wasn’t really much of a black organization either. That was part of the problem. Although some of the people who were involved in that community ended up being drawn into New Haven’s structure of the war on poverty and so forth and got involved in funneling resources into their own community.
President Johnson’s poverty programs were the response of the Democratic administration to this organizing that was going on in black and poor communities. The next part of our lives was also really an interlude because John Froines had won a postdoctoral fellowship in chemistry in London to do research at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. It was called the Royal Institution because it had been around for a while. All I remember about it was it was the lab where William Faraday did his electrical experiments and things like that. It had quite a glorious history in terms of British scientists.
We lived in London for almost two years. During that time, I wasn’t able to work. Even though the fellowship was a U.S. fellowship, John was considered an employed person in Britain, but I wasn’t considered employable as his wife. I went to the University of London and got a master’s degree in United States /Studies, which we call American Studies over here. And my lovely daughter, Rebecca, was born there – free, thanks to the National Health Service, since I was able to avail myself of that because of John’s job.
A lot was going on for me then, completing an M.A., and the baby girl, but not so much in the activist sense. There were quite a number of Americans in London, some of whom I had met in the United States, who were progressive activists. And we did form the Stop It Committee, which was basically focused on having regular demonstrations at the U.S. Embassy against the War in Vietnam. We would go there as Americans living abroad and protest the war. There were also some eye openers happening in London at that time, because we lived in the neighborhood of Notting Hill, which was also the neighborhood where a lot of immigrants lived, who had recently come to London, particularly from the West Indies, but also Africa.
There was a civil rights movement going on in London, and we were observers of that. We went to some meetings, but weren’t really active participants. We were also very much aware of how much was happening in the United States in that period. This was 1966 to the spring of 1968. The Black Panther Party was founded, among other things. A number of new organizations were developing then. I believe New University Conference was organized. The anti-draft organizing. We were looking forward to coming home. We returned to the United States in May 1968, and lived in Chicago at my parent’s house, because John and I were on our way to Oregon in the fall, where he was going to begin a job as Assistant Professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon.
Being in Chicago in May of 1968, getting in touch with our SDS friends, we discovered that a big demonstration was being organized for the August 1968 Democratic Convention. I had a new baby. She was only three or four months old, so I was not involved in that. I was taking care of her. John did get involved in organizing with the MOBE and other groups, for the anti-war demonstrations at the Democratic National Convention.
VR: I thought it was going to end in a police riot, and it did.
AF: There’s a lot online and in other places about what happened at the Chicago Democratic Convention. But my husband, John, was involved, staying already in Chicago, and being there ahead of time. Many local activists were involved in organizing local details. Some people were involved in organizing health care related things. There were people who were lining up to do journal coverage and write articles about what was happening. He got involved in organizing security and marshals for the demonstration with the assumption that since people were coming to Chicago from other places for days, because the convention is four or five days long, there would be issues about where they were going to be accommodated and all of that.
Very soon it became clear that confrontation was brewing since no permits were granted by the Daley administration to have any of these marches and demonstrations or to stay in the public parks. After the assassination of Martin Luther King in April 1968, there were a lot of demonstrations in Chicago, which had resulted in a lot of violence and arrests.
There was this sort of confluence of two major strains of the youth movements at that time, reflected in the organizing at Chicago.
One was the New Left, the anti-draft movement, the anti-war activists, some of whom were there supporting Eugene McCarthy, who was running for the Democratic nomination, and then the other, the yippies and hippies who came as a result of the call to have a festival of life in Lincoln Park. And I actually have in my files, a mimeographed call for the Festival. It was not really a flyer. It has no visuals at all. Just a typed-up mimeographed sheet where the yippies are calling for people to come to Chicago, and it was just so primitive looking.
VR: They wanted to nominate a pig for president.
AF: Yes. And they were talking about having a love-in and just generally doing disruptive and provocative things. And it is very much the case, as far as I remember from talking with other defendants among the Chicago 8 who were eventually indicted, it was kind of an independent effort on the part of the yippies, and we were all kind of together there in Chicago. And then out of that was forged this Conspiracy called the Chicago Eight and then Seven. But it wasn’t necessarily planned. It wasn’t planned by all of these people together.
Bobby Seale, of the Black Panther Party, came foe a short time to give a speech at one of the rallies, for example.
I was home, like everyone else or like many people, watching the whole thing on television rather than being down there in the streets at night. I believe I went to one or two demonstrations in the afternoon, in the daylight. We left town immediately after the convention demonstrations. There was a concern that the Chicago police were going to arrest people who had been identified as activists or organizers of it.
John actually went to Madison with some friends the day after the convention, just so he would not be in the state of Illinois. And I drove up to Madison a few days later with my daughter, Rebecca. We picked up John, and drove to Oregon. We kind of fled the scene, being concerned about possible arrests. And then to bring that story to its next stage, in March of 1969, the federal indictments came for the Chicago Eight, and John was served with a warrant in Eugene, Oregon for this federal indictment for conspiracy to travel to incite a riot and inciting a riot.
We were then facing the trial in Chicago subsequent to that. That year in Oregon was definitely an interlude. I had this very young child, and John was working hard, full time at the University. And I remember seeking people in my situation that I could find to talk with and spend time with. It wasn’t really necessary for me to get a part-time or a full-time job because we could easily live on his assistant professor’s salary. It was a bit of a lost year for me, except I was enjoying spending the time with my daughter.
We had some connections with activists in the Oregon area, but I wasn’t involved in any substantial organizing project that year. We returned to Chicago that summer to prepare for the trial. Again, we lived at my parent’s apartment. I will say a little bit about the organizing that I did during the Chicago trial because I did work very hard on that. Most of the defendants and the attorneys lived on the South Side. John and I were living on the West Side, so a lot of the meetings to prepare the defense were held on the South Side, and I attended some of those.
I would drive down there in the evening. My mother was home from work so she could be home with Rebecca. But in the first half of the trial, I wasn’t that busy because A) I hadn’t really lined up childcare yet and B), it was the time that prosecutors were putting on their case and presenting what they had in the way of “evidence” about this conspiracy. And of course, very quickly, the trial had been characterized in much of the media as a political show trial on the part of the government.
Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, in particular, made it even more dramatic by doing a lot of dramatic things in the courtroom. It was getting a huge amount of media attention. A lot of people were coming to line up outside the courthouse to go in and see the trial. It was a very important and big event in Chicago, at least from the media perspective. Through contacts my parents had with a Unitarian Church that my dad was involved with in Oak Park, I was able to meet a couple of women with children Rebecca’s age, and we formed a parents’ play group. We took turns, each mom taking the three kids for one or two days a week to free up the other two on those days.
For the first half of the trial, that’s what we did. And as I got more involved, the other two women graciously, because they wanted to make a contribution to what was happening to us, had Rebecca be in the play group, and I was freed up from being a parent of the play group. So that’s how I got more involved in the second half of the trial. I was able to go downtown four or five days a week and work in the conspiracy office.
The conspiracy office was staffed by a lot of people, both women and men, who provided an invisible backup and bones of what was going on. Some of it was about legal defense, but most of it was what I call political defense, organizing, helping to organize the speaking gigs that the defendants had every weekend as a way of raising awareness about the trial, and about the political repression of activists and also as a way of raising money. There was that whole kind of bureaucratic and organizing work that had to be done.
Then there was the preparation for the defense and the defense for the defendants had decided to put the Vietnam War on trial. Dozens of witnesses were invited to Chicago, many of whom had been at the Chicago Democratic Convention. And they would come and they would testify about what had happened in Chicago and what was happening in Vietnam, to the extent that the judge would allow that.
My role was pretty much working on the telephone, and the one picture I have from that era, which was taken by a random journalist, and I never knew it existed, but I found it online. It’s me on the telephone in the office with my hand up here looking frantic. A lot of it was contacting witnesses, arranging their flights, arranging someone to pick them up at the airport, all of that kind of grunt work that needs to be done to make something complicated like that happen. I was glad to do it. I didn’t resent it. I felt this attack on the anti-war movement was an attack on me as well.
The work that I did in ’69 and ’70 around the Chicago political trial was important to me. People who are familiar with that trial and there’s a lot about it online and certainly the movie Chicago Seven, the dramatic movie by Aaron Sorkin is available on Netflix. There are a number of other documentaries that are more accurate about what happened in Chicago and what happened at the trial that can be accessed as well. I guess the most dramatic thing about that trial was the chaining and gagging of Bobby Seale, one of the leaders of the Black Panther Party, for continually speaking in his own defense because he had no lawyer there to defend him.
His own lawyer, Charles Garry, who had defended other Panthers, was in the hospital having surgery and was unavailable to begin at the trial. Bobby Seale attempted to defend himself, but the judge wouldn’t allow that, and so eventually he ordered him bound and gagged in order to stop him from standing up and speaking out during the trial. That lasted for three days. That particular aspect of the drama happened before his case was separated from the rest of the Chicago Conspiracy Eight, and it became the Chicago Seven.
Meanwhile, also in December 1969, the State’s Attorney police, in conjunction with the Chicago Police Department, raided the apartment of the Black Panther leader in Chicago, Fred Hampton, as many people know, and ended up murdering two Panthers in that apartment, Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. The police claimed that they went in and they were shot at so they had the fire back. But investigations quickly proved that there had been no response from the Panthers and that these two men had actually been murdered in bed.
That was such an incredible example of the police brutality and repression of the Black Panthers, which we saw then. It was connected to the general kind of repressive atmosphere of the then Nixon administration against a lot of radical movements, including the anti-war movement or movements of whites connected with the Black liberation movement. And a number of us at that time began to talk about how we could be part of the movement against racist and political repression, not just political repression.
After the end of the Chicago trial, John Froines and Lee Weiner were acquitted.
All men were convicted of contempt but granted bail after a week or so in jail from those contempt citations. John and I decided that we would move to New Haven to work on the political defense of the trial of Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins, who had been indicted for conspiracy to commit murder in conjunction with a terrible thing that happened among the Black Panthers in New Haven, which was the killing of a purported member of the Black Panther Party by another member of the party.
It happened. Someone was murdered and several local Panthers were convicted of the crime before the Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins trial even started. But John and I, having had this experience in Chicago, having lived in New Haven and still having contacts there, decided not to return to Eugene to resume his career as an assistant professor. He resigned from the University; he was not fired. We decided to move to New Haven to work with other activists there who were already working and doing some political organizing around that trial. So that’s what led us to this second year in this intense interlude of working around political trials. That’s what led us to New Haven.
VR: How did you survive financially?
AF: We initially just moved in with a friend of ours, Johnny Bancroft, and some others who lived in a commune collective house until we found our own place. The major way we survived was that John, because of his involvement in the Chicago trial, was still able to get college speaking engagements. In fact, during that year, he was still doing considerable traveling and using the conspiracy trial network connections that had been developed to get these speaking engagements. Frankly, it’s all a little vague in my mind because I wasn’t bringing in any money, but we somehow had money through his speaking engagements to rent an apartment, get borrowed furniture and live a very sparse existence.
Rents were $80 to $100 a month, as I remember and Rebecca went to the local Head Start child care program in the Hill Neighborhood in New Haven.
We had a car and a typewriter and we had borrowed furniture and we had food, and that was about it. But that seemed [to be] all we needed. The Panthers had been raising money, and the Panther Defense Committee, of which I was one of the organizers and a spokesperson for during this period, was able to rent a small office in downtown New Haven, out of which to operate. The Panthers had some links all over the country with sources of money from well-to-do people who were able to help fund this operation.
VR: Is there a tie at all between your feminist consciousness in this particular trial and Ericka Huggins being a defendant?
AF: There is an aspect that was pointed [out] to me. And that is when the Panther Party’s chapter in New Haven was raided after this murder happened.
By the way, there’s a whole book about this case. And that book by Paul Bass shows that a police informer actually supplied the car to take these two Panthers to the site where this murder of a suspected police informer took place. In other words, the police could have stopped this, but instead they helped promote it.
That was not known to me at the time. Amyway, it was a difficult thing to work around this case because we were working against conspiracy law as a way of taking out leadership in the movement. That’s what I saw myself as doing. But the entire Panther chapter was arrested. Eight of the twelve or so people that were arrested were women. And several of those women were in prison for a long time before their pretrial hearings. Two of them, I believe, gave birth in prison, and they were generally treated extremely badly. This all happened in the year previously 1969, while the Chicago Conspiracy trial was taking place.
But there was very little publicity about these women in prison. And I remember feeling the contrast to how much publicity the Chicago Seven were getting for every little thing that happened to them. It was such an incredible contrast. And there were actually already some women’s groups in New Haven. Women vs Connecticut was happening, which was a political lawsuit involved in trying to achieve abortion rights in Connecticut. There had also been some women’s marches in support of the Panthers.
Women had come from Boston, New York and Connecticut to march in support of the Panthers at different times. We organized different marches while I was doing this political defense work, which was pretty much something we were kind of inventing as we went along. There wasn’t any training for this exactly. But I’ll explain what evolved in a minute. I remember also going to a couple of marches related to abortion law reform in New York state because New York State was one of the first states I believe, that repealed its laws against abortion.
There was this women’s liberation activity percolating around me. But my main focus at this point was this Panther defense. And what it really meant was speaking to local community groups, going to college campuses in Connecticut and Massachusetts to try to raise awareness and some support for a big rally we had organized for May 1st, 1970 in New Haven to support Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins. And organizing for that rally involved negotiations with Yale University. It involved speaking on college campuses. It involved speaking with community groups. It involved organizing marshals again to have a peaceful demonstration, occasional press conferences. That was the kind of work our little small defense committee did.
VR: We are now starting with interview number two. Please describe how you got involved in the women’s movement and in women’s studies and how you built the women’s studies program at University of Massachusetts in Boston.
AF: In my previous interview, I talked about working with the Panther Defense Committee in New Haven in 1970 and 1971 during a trial that involved Bobby Seale and Ericka Huggins. Prior to that trial, I was asked to participate in a delegation that was partly organized by some anti-war people in the United States and Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panther Party, to make a trip to North Vietnam and North Korea. In the summer of 1970, I spent almost two months in the Far East, and part of the trip that had the most impact on me was the month we spent in Vietnam.
And that was because in 1970, the war in Vietnam had been going on for five years. We were in the north during a bombing pause, and we were able to travel around the countryside quite a bit and meet a lot of people and really see the impact of the war on the people of Vietnam. And we also met at some length with members of the People’s Liberation Army, with women’s organizations, and with peasants’ organizations. And I really felt I got quite an amazing education on some aspects of the revolutionary society that was being built in the northern part of Vietnam, as well as the impact of the American War.
Upon returning to the United States, I had this new background about women in revolutionary societies because we also looked at the status of women in North Korea and briefly had a visit in China as well. I should mention that on this delegation there were seven women and four men. There was a lot of recognition that we would be interested in women’s issues. When our work on the Panther trial in New Haven was complete, John and I moved to Boston, where I had proposed to teach a course about women in Vietnam and China at the Cambridge Goddard School for Social Change.
It was a graduate program for social change. It was very alternative, as there were some new education innovations around this time, and it was based in Boston, even though Goddard was in Vermont. Anyway, the seminar I had proposed would be looking at women in these revolutionary societies and also reading and discussing some feminist writings to help advance our ideas about feminist thought.
That’s how I thought about this course. The feminist studies program at Cambridge Goddard was launched by Linda Gordon, who the previous year had taught a course on American women’s history in that program, and she and other people at the institution decided to expand that into a little small feminist studies program. I taught there at the Cambridge Goddard’s Feminists Studies program for two years. We were very audacious. We invented these courses out of whole cloth. (Linda Gordon became a leading scholar of women’s history in the U.S., with numerous wonderful histories and biographies published.)
And this first course I taught, it was interesting how it evolved, because after looking at these readings that I had pulled together from some source books available in the United States and some things I brought back from Vietnam and China, we realized we were starting to know a little more about the status of women historically in Vietnam than actually any of us knew historically of women in the United States. Because we had never studied it as undergraduate or even graduate students.
And we shifted gears in the middle of the year and started looking at the history of American women with a focus on both their multicultural diversity and the economic role of women. And our seminar published a dramatic reading at the end of the year, which we performed, “The History of Women and Work in the United States.” And I tell that story because it’s illustrative of some of the very early things that were going on in nontraditional educational settings, whether they were women’s centers or women’s schools that were also being developed at this time in the women’s centers or in this case, Cambridge Goddard.
VR: Do you have a copy of that play?
AF: I do. Actually, it was more of a dramatic reading. It didn’t have characters. It had quotations from different historical documents. It was published by the New England Free Press, which was another institution built in the movement in the Boston area in the late 1960s and 1970s. And that was also the time I was involved in a socialist feminists study group. And we were reading feminist theory that we could get a hold of and talking about our politics in relation to feminist thought.
VR: One of the charges currently in 2021 about the 1970’s women’s movement, is that it didn’t understand intersectionality, intersection between race and class and gender in terms of the role of individual women and their power or lack of power in the culture. Did you feel that you had a view of women that was intersectional as you were starting to study about women abroad and women in the United States?
AF: I did. And maybe that comes from having participated in civil rights and being in the movement and to some extent my upbringing. We would call it the special nature of racism in the United States and racial oppression. I will say, though, in my first two years at Cambridge Goddard, when we were beginning this program there, I didn’t have it as strongly developed as it came out later when I started teaching women’s studies at UMass Boston, and then everything we tried to incorporate in our courses included race and class, to the extent we felt capable of doing that.
But that’s sort of looking ahead. I think maybe if the feminists today look back and just look at one year or one moment or one conference, they will see maybe not as much intersectionality as they would like, but I hope I can describe some of the ways, at least in New England, we were confronting racism in particular and also classism, or class oppression, as we were working in women’s studies.
VR: Will you talk about how you went from the Goddard program? And you were living collectively at the time, right?
AF: Yes, I was. And it was a good thing because I was earning $2,000 a year teaching in this seminar. Not only were we living collectively, but Cambridge Goddard was run very collectively. We called ourselves a “Radical” feminist studies program, first of all. And everything was decided collectively. There were innumerable meetings, needless to say. And the whole institution, such as it was, was run by a people’s Council, which met weekly.
I remember having many meetings to make every decision concerning this activity. And a lot of the students weren’t that different from me. They just didn’t yet have a master’s degree. Because they were getting a master’s degree from Goddard College after they completed this year long seminar and did a project or wrote a paper.
I myself only had a master’s degree, but that didn’t bother Goddard. And since we worked very collectively, even in our seminars, it was just something that probably couldn’t be duplicated these days in any institution of higher education. But I don’t know, it was an era of experimentation in a lot of ways. In 1974, I started working as a coordinator without any teaching responsibilities for a newly launched women’s studies program at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. And that’s where I was associated for 30 years, about 28 of which I was teaching as well.
It was time, it was essential for me to get a fulltime job, with benefits, because John and I were separated, and subsequently divorced.
This is my story, I guess you would say, about how I saw what I was able to do as an activist and a teacher in that program. Most places started out as a group of interdisciplinary courses taught by women in various departments who were applying feminist analysis or trying to bring women back into history, all the different ways women had been omitted from much of what we had been learning.
By the time I came there, there were already eight or ten courses, psychology, English, economics, history, where one faculty member was teaching something on a regular basis involving women, gender and feminist analysis. My job as coordinator, along with the Women Studies Advisory board over the next five to ten years, was to try to build that small interdisciplinary program into a small department, which would have both interdisciplinary courses that we would design and teach as well as the department-based courses.
And so that is what I put a lot of my energy into as the director for the most part, for the first ten years of that program. And we gradually built it up to having four of our own faculty members who taught interdisciplinary courses that we designed so that we ended up having 20 or so courses every semester. We had majors, we had minors, and we got a lot of students, mostly women, but some men, who were taking our courses because they were part of a general education curriculum, a core curriculum. And I began teaching 5 courses a year by the second year of our program’s curriculum. Women and Society, Women’s Education. Women and Public Policy, Internship in Women’s Studies.
And that was a strategy we developed both to reach out and involve more people, more students in our courses, as well as to entrench ourselves institutionally. We would be seen as a valuable contributor to education at UMass. Women’s Studies, developed in both public higher education and private education somewhat differently, and I think it’s hard to compare them sometimes and generalize about women’s studies.
But in public institutions, particularly ones like UMass Boston, which are located in cities where many students are first generation college students, there are a lot of opportunities to interact with community organizations and bring community people onto campus for various activities. And we did a lot of that in our program. Describing my most memorable or important experiences in women’s studies, I would say it was to try to link women’s studies as an academic concern with activist women’s organizations in the community and make the resources they had available to our students, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, make the resources the university had available to community groups.
And a couple of examples of this would be I taught a course, almost the entire time I was there called the Women’s Studies Internship, where students were placed in an internship setting of their own choosing from an extensive file I had gathered of various sites where they could get experiences organizing, experiences learning about service work with women, experiences in publications and all kinds of different experiences because they wanted to have this kind of background in their education. And it helped them make decisions about careers and their own values and things that are important for undergraduates. Incidentally, many of our undergraduates were, in fact, women over 25, because we had a substantial number of returning students.
That was one way of getting students involved in community organizations. And then another thing that we did and had a variety of programs over the years and conferences about this. The most important of which was a conference we did in the mid ’80s called “Women in Poverty in Massachusetts,” and this was done with the Women’s Studies program and several other units within the University that were concerned about social issues. You may remember the mid ’80s was the time when there was a lot of debate about the welfare state, and there were beginnings of cuts being made in welfare.
There was a pretty strong welfare rights movement in the Boston area. And a group of us from the university spent a total of two years from start to finish working on the preparation for this conference on “Women in Poverty,” the actual doing of the conference, and then a publication that came out of the conference. And it took a long time, because we were really making the resources of the University available to these groups in the community that were working around women’s poverty and women’s employment.
It took a long time in planning it because the presenters were primarily activists, not academics, and the workshops were available and open to community people, of course. And we had to do a lot of publicity to get some of these folks to come to campus. So even though we were not far from downtown Boston, a lot of folks in the community, particularly busy women, hadn’t thought about participating in things at the university.
VR: You had mentioned returning students, which was a big deal in the ’80s, that women went to college. Were these women mostly individuals who had never been to college and were older and came because they wanted to get a BA or were they women who came because they wanted to get an advanced degree?
AF: They were women who came back to school to get a bachelor’s degree. They might have started somewhere but never finished. We even had for a brief period of time, a returning women student advisor at UMass who did outreach and provided some counseling and support for returning women students, particularly mothers. It was all undergraduates. Our program only taught undergraduates at that point, and the vast majority of students in the early years at UMass were undergraduates.
VR: Of your students, what percentage?
AF: I’m not sure what percentage of our students were returning. I would say a good percentage of our majors and our students were definitely older than 22. And everybody who’s older than college age is considered a returning student.
VR: Because this was happening all over the country. It’s really interesting. And colleges were trying to figure out how to build programs in response to this interest because a lot of the women had families and their kids were grown. They were adults. Anyway, it’s interesting that it was happening there.
AF: I would say the majority of our students that I met over those years were younger and they had either young children or no children yet. And they weren’t married women for the most part. And, of course, an important issue at UMass, and something that we struggled with, was reaching out in a good way and providing support for women of color who wanted to take women’s studies. For the first ten years of our program, we didn’t have any full-time women of color in the women’s studies department. We had women of color teaching in other departments.
Like many women’s studies programs, I think it was seen as mainly something for white women at UMass Boston, and that was always an issue for women’s studies in its early years. Nowadays, women’s studies is much more diverse, much more truly intersectional, for better or for worse. I mean, there’s intersectionality in theory, and then there’s intersectionality in practice. Every organization faces that.
VR: Going back to the conference on “Women in Poverty in Massachusetts,” because that seems like an interesting effort to bring the community into the university, what was the outcome of that?
AF: It’s hard to measure what impact it may have had. Some of the women who were involved in those organizations had already been students, either part time or full time at UMass. Some of them came later, after the conference and asked to become students. We published an extensive report and all these costs, of course, were born by the University from money that we had raised. That was circulated to every member of the Massachusetts Assembly in support of specific initiatives that various community groups were taking, trying to get funding for this, that and the other program dealing with women and economics. And this was sort of a statement of need that we provided as a result of this conference.
One of the women who I really need to mention is Randy Albelda. She taught for years and may still be at UMass in the Economics Department. She is an economist who had done a lot of work, provided the data and supported the analysis on the needs of women who live in poverty, single mothers, needs of women for employment. One of the reasons I think our program was able to do these things is we had a lot of other faculty at UMass who were interested in these issues. It wasn’t just a handful of people in women’s studies.
VR: How did the program evolve over the 30 years?
AF: I’ll mention one eternal issue for us. It was trying to hire more women of color in our own faculty and in particular, African American women. And over the years, before that became more possible because of getting more resources, we struggled in women’s studies in New England and with the issue of women and racism, because of the situation of women’s studies in many places being mostly white. Our New England Women’s Studies Association, which was an ad hoc kind of thing that some of us organized – to bring together women in New England on an annual basis for a conference.
We organized a conference in 1983, “Women Confront Racism in New England,” which was a really big effort, to combine both white women’s consciousness raising about racism among ourselves with more information and learning about women of other ethnicities and other races. This was another thing I spent a lot of time on because I was on the steering committee of the New England Women’s Studies Association for its entire 20-year existence. And I spent a lot of time with other women over those years confronting some of the issues that I had been concerned about as an activist all my life.
The National Women’s Studies Association also had a conference in the mid ’80s about women and racism. I mention this because this was our way of struggling with this concept that’s now known as intersectionality and learning about and acknowledging the different ways oppression affects people and how to better work together as allies around various issues. I mean, now we talk about the importance of white women seeing themselves as effective allies in the fight against racism. As far as our own women’s studies program developing, we began to hire more of the women from diverse ethnic and racial communities to teaching with us at UMass. And about that time, I took early retirement. I left UMass in 2004.
In the years since then, some women faculty have left their other departments because of some reorganization that’s happened at the University and have come over to women’s studies. So that now plus some new hires in the department , the central program core is majority women of color. I was looking recently at the curriculum, and it really does still focus on social justice in a global perspective now because two of our faculty actually were born in other countries and had part of their education in those countries before they came here for graduate study.
VR: Is the program as big or bigger? Does it attract more women or fewer women or about the same?
AR: About the same in terms of majors, as far as I know. It’s still well enrolled, and it’s not immediately threatened with any cuts. The other thing I know about it is that it has supported the development of several other centers and programs, particularly one in human rights, because several of the newer faculty in women studies had experience in human rights struggles and research on human rights. There’s now an important human rights minor at the University of Massachusetts.
Another thing, I saw my role as an activist in the University as sort of institution building for women’s issues and women’s representation in the University. We also had the opportunity to bring over to our campus a Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy, which was a very small center of teaching activism, offering enrichment courses for women who wanted to get more involved in politics and public policy. It is for women who already had bachelor’s degrees. It had originally been at Boston College. It was looking for a new home, and after some struggle over a couple of years, looking for resources and space, a small committee of us succeeded in establishing it at UMass Boston.
Now that has really blossomed into another Center that offers a certificate at the graduate level and a master’s degree and has been a launching point for many women who get involved in public policy and politics, running for office in Massachusetts. It has a good representation of women of color. During its early years there, I was on the board of the center and also assisted during a crisis.
Like many of these small, poorly funded women’s centers, both outside the University and inside the University, they sometimes have crises that have mediated. It is a remarkable flourishing center for women’s empowerment now.
I served as an acting director with another faculty member for a year over one of the crises. When I look back on my activism at the University on behalf of women, again, I see it as mainly building institutions there that will continue the training of women, the education of women, with a focus on trying to reach for social justice, gender justice, and racial justice.
VR: Do you know if any of the women who’ve been running for Mayor in Boston had gone through that Institute?
AF: I don’t know if Michelle Wu, who I saw over the weekend campaigning on television, went to that program. There are a number of people who are in the state legislature or who ran for mayor of towns who went through that program and as well as women who work in policy positions.
VR: It sounds like you and your colleagues had a strategy to keep the Women’s Studies program relevant and like you said, to institutionalize it in the University so that it didn’t get marginalized as an academic focus and educational focus. How would you characterize what it’s like now as opposed to what it was like before? Because at the beginning, when you got there, it was kind of like an insurgent new thing on campus. Now it’s been there for 30 years, 40 years.
AF: I should just mention, the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Department has had department status for years, even though it has an interdisciplinary curriculum still.
The WGSS Department is still mainly about education of undergraduates. A number of the faculty are pretty well connected to activist projects. They’re connected to global human rights consortiums. They’re active with adolescent health programs. Also legal services, ethnic organizations, immigrant organizations. So yes, I think it’s fair to say that the program, our department there, is still activist connected and raising important issues, but I’m not present enough to know exactly how it impacts undergraduates’ lives.
I did go back for a 40th anniversary celebration not too long ago. The students were mainly the speakers. And it was clear that the program meant a lot to them and impacted their lives in very important ways, in a supportive way, as well as an intellectually challenging way that made their experience at UMass more rewarding to them. And they gave a lot of credit to their faculty for doing that. The vibes were very good.
VR: You should be really proud of that, because some women studies programs came and went. Some of them became more theoretical and separated from the community. You left something where it generates new feminists and new activism.
AF: It partly depends on the location of a campus and the type of institution. Because a small liberal arts college is semi-rural. It has problems in reaching out to a community, where we were right there on the subway in Boston. The whole mission of the University is to be relevant to the state and to the city. I know colleagues and friends have talked about the struggle for years to get one faculty line and that kind of thing. We had struggles around those issues, but there was more recognition on the part of the administration, that we were doing something valuable.
And in fact, at one point, the provost for a considerable number of years, that’s the chief academic officer, was somebody who had taught in the women’s studies program. And actually, a lot of times some of the women’s studies faculty who were so effective that the faculty member would get siphoned off into administration. I remember that happened at UMass Amherst, too. Or they’d end up as a President of some small women’s college. There was quite a dramatic change in higher education from our undergraduate days now in terms of women’s power and women’s involvement.
VR: Right. Well, I think the majority of undergraduates are women in terms of the census across the country, in colleges.
AF: I don’t know the exact statistics, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if 50% of all chief executive officers in higher education are women. When Harvard gets a woman President, you know it’s okay.
VR: And the head of the AFL CIO, I don’t know if it’s temporary or permanent, but it’s a woman. It’s amazing. Big changes.
AF: We used to joke that when it became harder to manage institutions of higher education because there’s so many conflicting stakeholders, and there are so many problems, particularly public higher education with funding, then they turn them over to women because men don’t want the jobs.
The final thing I want to comment on here is that from about 1972 to 1988, I was still involved in Vietnam related organizing. For example, from ‘72 to ’75, I was very active in the Indochina peace campaign, and I even took a leave of absence from Cambridge Goddard to work in the first Indochina peace campaign speaking tour. Tom Hayden and Jane Fonda and others were touring in the Midwest, and I came out to the Midwest and worked on scheduling and logistics for that tour.
VR: Do you see your involvement with the anti-war movement influencing your feminist politics and your politics in general, or do you see it as influencing your politics at all?
AF: That’s a good question. Because of being involved in the anti-war movement, I never lost my interest and concern about American foreign and military policy. And it was part of our generation’s awakening on the true nature of America’s role in the world starting in the ’60s. We’re not exporting democracy, really. And that concern about the wellbeing of people in other countries when we intervene, starting with Vietnam, had me looking back at our involvement in Latin America in the ’50s and so forth.
And then if you start expanding into looking at the Middle East and the rest of the world, you realize that as an American citizen, you have to protest these interventions. And certainly, massive numbers did. When the United States intervened in Iraq in 2003, nobody listened to the protests. The government didn’t really listen. At the very beginning of my teaching, I was interested in looking at women in revolutionary societies because I had been introduced to the women and their roles in the Vietnam War and the Vietnam resistance as well as society as a whole.
I actually taught for a couple of years, even at UMass, a course which we then called Women in Third World Countries until someone was more equipped than I could take over a course like that. I always felt that women’s studies really did need to have a global outlook. I guess that’s how it affected my work. It’s also problematic to try to bring all these different parts of all your activism all the way along through your life, I’ve discovered.
VR: I do think the experience of working on ending the Vietnam War, particularly for someone like you who went to Vietnam, I think it kind of communicated how important your actions are. You could help people from being murdered in Vietnam, their country being decimated. If you could just figure out how to be effective. There was a certain urgency about it.
AF: In the mist of time.. . . I mean, I still think about the bombings, about the tiger cages, about these horrible things that were going on there in our name. My Lai. It came to be seen ultimately in the national consciousness as a stupid mistake, not a crime. The U.S. was “well meaning,” and it was the “fog of war,” that kind of thing. A lot of people still don’t see these interventions as antithetical to what our country should be doing.
There’s one more aspect of my women studies career I really need to focus on. My last few years at UMass, I had a kind of upside-down career, I was in a graduate program, a doctoral program in the College of Education at UMass, writing about women’s studies and the institutionalization of women’s studies programs. I finished that dissertation in 2004, just about the time I left the University as a newly minted EdD.
It’s available on something called ScholarWorks, which is one of many Internet archives that publishes works and makes them available to anybody who wants to download it. And I always felt kind of sad that I had done this at the end of my career and had no way of promoting it or talking about it or using the ideas in it to help to pass on to other’s trying to establish programs. But what I’ve discovered is by virtue of being on ScholarWorks, it’s been downloaded nearly 700 times, which is fairly significant for a dissertation. And from all over the world, including Pakistan and Thailand and Russia.
That’s the amazing thing about the Internet. You can spread these ideas and experiences and share them in other places. And I guess the main thesis I tried to demonstrate in this dissertation was the importance of actually building a women’s studies program that involved as many departments as possible. The thesis was that women’s studies programs that were based in departments as well as having their own faculty could be well- institutionalized and could last over time, because there was a kind of thrust at one point in women’s studies to have it taught only by faculty who had degrees in women’s studies, PhDs in women’s studies and you had to be in a women’s studies department to offer a course in women’s studies.
It was like trying to make women’s studies as much like other fields as possible, to be modeled like other fields. As though that would give it status and stability. And to me, for at least for this time period, that not a good idea, because so many women other than those who wanted to specialize in the field and be theoretical about women’s studies were really interested in the study of women and gender. And those were the people who had as much of a drive for social justice and social change as the people inside women’s studies. So that was kind of why I wrote the dissertation on that topic. It may seem out of date to some now, but it seems to be relevant to people in other parts of the world who were concerned about institutionalizing women’s studies.
VR: What would you say to a younger generation about what it meant to you in your life to gravitate towards feminism?
AF: As things change the way people talk about them changes, too. It wasn’t my last thing in women’s studies, per se, but the dissertation was one way of imparting to a wider audience some of what I felt I learned in my own experience. I guess I’m old enough now, so I think the stories have to be told in various ways of women’s experiences over these years that we have lived. For example, after I was retired, I worked with 9to5, the Office Workers Organization and Local 925 SEIU, Service Employees International Union, to prepare a big archive of stories of those activists and those organizers. And I was hired by a committee of that Union to interview about 50 people and have their stories told.
And they were put in an oral history archive at Wayne State University, where Service Employees International Union archives are. So that’s another example of how women get to tell their stories and make them available to younger people who want to know about the stories of activists over the last 50 years. I think about how much there is now available for people to read about women’s organizing as opposed to what was available when we first started women’s studies programs.
We gradually began to uncover scholarship, books that have been written about women in history, but they were few and far between – stories of women who shaped public policy and state and federal governments whose contributions had been overlooked. There were documentary records of that, but not very much of it. So much of it went unheeded and unheralded. It’s still being uncovered actually. The activities and lives of women that in the 19th century is still being uncovered.
VR: Is there anything else you feel you want to say or you want to add?
AF: Just briefly, something that I’ve been working on in the last eight months or so, because of the impact of Black Lives Matter on my thinking or rethinking and my previous work on behalf of defendants in the criminal justice system, I got involved with an organization in Connecticut and particularly in the New Haven area called Stop Solitary Connecticut. And what it is advocating for is to stop the widespread use of solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons as a way of controlling prisoners’ behavior.
A group of people, mostly people of color, but others as well, have been working on this for about ten years, in fact, trying to change the Department of Corrections policy on this. They had a piece of legislation last year up before the Connecticut Assembly, and it finally passed with bipartisan support from some Republicans, mostly Democrats in both houses. And it passed with a considerable margin. And it was a pretty comprehensive condemnation of the use of solitary and restrictions, really placing big restrictions on the use of solitary confinement, mainly around the idea that it’s cruel and unusual punishment and causes mental anguish and increases mental illness.
And then to our great shock and surprise, the governor vetoed this bill, a moderate Democrat. And so now the group, under lead organizer Barbara Fair, is trying to reconnoiter and figure out what strategy to pursue with the Governor, who tried to cover himself by saying he was going to put through some of these restrictions through executive order. But executive orders aren’t as effective as real legislation. It remains to be seen how the community that was working on this is going to respond. I was surprised just to see how backward Connecticut is on this matter. New York State has passed a law recently severely restricting the use of solitary. How effective it is and how it’s being implemented is another story.
Update: June 2022. Barbara Fair and Stop Solitary Connecticut succeeded in this legislative session to get a prison reform bill passed that establishes an independent ombudsman and advisory group to evaluate and oversee the use of solitary confinement, and sets guidelines to limit its use. An important victory.
VR: Thank you so much. This is really important history. I’m really glad that you agreed to do this, and you might want to create a link also to those 9to5 interviews you did because I think that’s also another source, like you said, of really important stories that often are not accessible.
AF: I was pleased to learn that the filmmakers of “9to5: The Story of a Movement,” which is on Netflix, started researching for that film using those archives. That was another way I felt rewarded by that effort. Thank you very much for listening.