THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Georgette Bennett
“The circumstances into which I was born, foreshadowed my eventually becoming a feminist.”
Interviewed by Rebecca Lubetkin, VFA Legacy, March 2021
RL: My name is Rebecca Lubetkin and today I will be interviewing the sociologist and feminist activist Georgette Bennett, who is president and founder of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding and also the founder of the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees. Today is March 30th, 2021. Please tell us your full name and where and when you were born.
GB: Georgette Bennett, I was born in Budapest in 1946, and I have come very far from those roots.
RL: I would like to start with your early life. When you think of that time, is there anything that might have foreshadowed your future as a feminist pioneer in thought and activity?
GB: Although it’s not immediately obvious, yes. The circumstances into which I was born foreshadowed my eventually becoming a feminist, but it was really through my mother. I was born immediately after the Holocaust. My parents both went through all of the horrors of the Holocaust and I was born into a bombed out building in Budapest.
My father was Polish, and that’s a whole other Holocaust story. He and his sister escaped from Poland after having been in Auschwitz. I don’t know how anybody escapes Auschwitz, but apparently some people did. They managed to get false papers and ended up in Budapest. My mother was a custom-made lingerie designer who had a salon in Budapest. At that time, Jews weren’t allowed to have businesses so she was running it illegally. Every day she would take a coffee break across the street at a café.
One day this man walked in with his sister and he started talking about what was going on in Poland. Nobody wanted to believe him. They told him to stop being an alarmist. But my mother believed him. She took him in with his sister and hid them. By then, air raids were a regular thing in Budapest and people would go down to the basement of the apartment building where she lived to take shelter.
During one of the air raids, one of my mother’s neighbors noticed that she was with two strangers. She denounced my mother to the Gestapo for hiding Jews. My mother was arrested and then she was sent to concentration camp. My father was put on a forced labor train to Vienna but managed to jump off somehow. He was very resourceful and he rescued my mother. It is quite a story.
My mother was put into a communist prison after the Soviets “liberated” Hungary. It became clear that if we were going to stay in Hungary, the persecution would never stop. We escaped Hungary in 1948, to France, which is where I spent my early childhood. There was a lot of displacement, but we lived in France for the years it took to get our papers to emigrate to the United States. After that very long wait, my father died within a year of our arrival in the U.S. There we were, my mother and I, alone in McCarthy’s America.
RL: What year was that?
GB: 1952. Having come from a communist country, my mother was left as a young widow in a strange country with no close family or any kind of support system. She had to figure it all out on her own. My mother didn’t set out to be a feminist. She was traditional in that sense. She thought that a woman should find a good husband to take care of her. But because of her experience and having to be so resourceful in order to ensure our survival, my mother always told me you have to be self-sufficient. For her that was not the default position; that was because you may not find the man who can take care of you. But she was a feminist in the way she lived her life, so I think that’s what foreshadowed my feminism. It really came from being a refugee.
RL: When you got here then, you were living where?
GB: We lived in Kew Gardens, a nice middle-class neighborhood in Queens, New York. It was a neighborhood where there were a lot of Central European Jews, many of them Holocaust survivors. A documentary was made about it called “Last Stop Kew Gardens.” Because there were an exceptional number of successful people that came out of that neighborhood, a Cornell professor was interested in exploring what it was about this neighborhood that generated all these success stories? In my case, being Jewish, being the child of a highly educated and very cultured woman, education was the key to success.
My mother’s dream was that I would attend one of the elite women’s colleges and with the help of scholarships and loans, I was able to do just that. I got into Smith and I got into Vassar. Vassar offered me the better scholarship so that’s where I ended up. And that’s where I was exposed for the first time to real feminism as a way of living one’s life. In preparation for freshman orientation – at that time, Vassar was an all-women’s college – we had to read The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Those were huge eye openers for me. Little did I realize that only a few years later I would become part of a very small group that Betty Friedan had founded, the Women’s Advocacy Committee. The Women’s Advocacy Committee organized the first women’s march in New York City in 1970.
RL: You were still in college at the time?
GB: No, no, no, I started college in 1964. I came in with the class of ’68, but I graduated with the class of ’67. Immediately after that, I went to NYU for a PhD. I got my PhD in 1972 so didn’t yet have it at the time that I was admitted into the Women’s Advocacy Committee. There were just 12 women, but what women they were: Betty Friedan, Elinor Guggenheimer, Carol Greitzer, Ronnie Eldridge, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and a few others.
I could never, ever figure out how a young schnook like me – who hadn’t yet achieved anything or even finished her studies – could find herself in such august company. Ellen Mintz, who was one of the members of the Women’s Advocacy Committee, was the person who introduced me and nominated me. Even though a member had nominated me, I still couldn’t figure out what I was doing in this pantheon of icons.
After the Women’s Advocacy Committee organized the first women’s march, John Lindsay, who was mayor at the time, designated us as an official mayoral committee. I could never figure out, was he just doing this to shut us up or did he really mean it? After all, these women were very busy professionals, these were not ladies who lunch. None of us were paid for our advocacy work. We were charged with looking into the position of women in city government and did this work as volunteers. Almost through a process of drawing straws, Ellen and I ended up in the police department, this last bastion of manhood.
Our assignment was to look into the situation of women as victims, colleagues, and criminals. This was 1971, a time during which crimes committed by women were starting to increase. When we started doing the work in the police department, it was purely advocacy. We began by working on the civil service requirements for entering the police department. There were only a handful of women who were sworn police officers, but they were restricted to matron duty or secretarial work, which meant they couldn’t advance in the ranks.
One of the reasons was the separate civil service lists. Women who had passed the exam and men who passed the exam were hired from separate lists. We managed to get the civil service lists merged. That was number one.
Also, the physical requirements were not bona fide occupational qualifications. The fact that you had to be a minimum of 5’6″ tall meant that most women could never qualify, and neither could many Puerto Rican men. There were a whole lot of civil service requirements that were not bona fide occupational requirements.
We wanted to get the height requirements reduced. They were not only reduced; they were completely eliminated. The physical requirements were adjusted so that whatever needed to be done was really related to the job and not just some arbitrary requirement that had been imposed. This changed the whole way that police were hired. That was the second big breakthrough.
When we got that done, Police Commissioner Pat Murphy, known for his anti-corruption campaign, asked us whether we would take a leave of absence from our teaching positions to work for the police department full time.
At the same time that we were advocating for civil service change, we were also working on the issue of women as victims. Susan Brownmiller and I met with the police commissioner and she had just written her extraordinary book Men, Women, and Rape. We lobbied for a sex crimes unit with specially trained police officers to deal with victims of sex crimes. That actually came to pass and became the template for this long running franchise on TV called “Law and Order: SVU.”
One day, my son and I were on the set of “Law and Order SVU,” a show that both of us passionately loved. We had won a day on the set in a charity auction. When I was speaking to Christopher Meloni and Mariska Hargitay, who is a fellow Hungarian, they were stunned to learn that they were looking at the person who had helped create the unit that gave them this program. That was a fun experience.
At around this time, I was also doing research on rape around the country with Amatai Etzioni, a very prominent sociologist. That research resulted in an article for Reason magazine. Rape was a theme that would come up again later in my career.
Going back to our full-time consultancy for the police department, we found that you couldn’t address the issue of women as victims, colleagues and criminals without addressing the masculine ethic that permeated policing. We needed to find a way to change the culture of the police department from a man of action image to a service orientation.
We created the Full-Service Neighborhood Team Policing model – one of the pioneering endeavors in the international movement that is today called community policing. We took a total systems approach in order to create a consistent set of expectations from day of recruitment to day of retirement. We completely rewrote the police academy curriculum, worked with the NYPD on an early warning system to identify violence prone officers, and created an incentive program to deal with the cynicism curve that peaks at 10 years on the job. That curve is what accounts for so much of the insensitivity that we often see among police.
That was an extraordinary experience and an extraordinary opportunity. It gave me a whole career as a criminologist in which I worked with police departments all over the country and the Department of Justice. But it wasn’t easy at NYPD. Being one of the few women in authority generated a great deal of resentment. You had people who had been on the job for twenty-five years and never had the kind of access to the police commissioner that we did.
As personal consultants to the police commissioner, we were in and out of his office all the time. But as far as the troops were concerned, we had a bunch of strikes against us. A, we were women. B, we were academics. C, we were civilians. Yet these sworn officers didn’t have the access or the authority that we had.
Don Cawley, Pat Murphy’s successor as police commissioner, was the one who really opened up this huge opportunity for us. He used to hold management retreats where he would take all the chiefs or all the sergeants or all the lieutenants to a retreat center outside of New York to discuss whatever issues were on the agenda at that time. These retreats lasted for two or three days, so we would be there overnight.
I remember walking by one of the rooms where there were three officers talking. They didn’t know that I was there and I overheard heard them complain: “the police department’s being taken over by a couple of school teachers. It’s a pinko commie plot to undermine law enforcement and turn police into a bunch of fag social workers.”
That was the easy stuff. The hard stuff were the attempts to discredit us with rumors, me in particular. We used to ride in the police chopper with the police commissioner to get from New York City to the retreat center. The pilot swore he saw me giving the police commissioner a blowjob in the back seat of the chopper.
Then there was the rumor about me having gone skinny dipping with the chief of detectives in the police academy pool. The chief of detectives hit on me fairly regularly for quite a while. One of the times when he was pushing me to sleep with him, I told him “Why should I risk cancer by sleeping with you?” He thought I was completely out of my mind, but we were just learning about the human papillomavirus. In those days, we didn’t have the vaccine for that. Why did I want to sleep with this guy and risk cervical cancer? His jaw dropped; he’d never been turned down like that before.
That was some of what we had to put up with. In the beginning when we were training sergeants and different groups going through the police academy, they literally tried to laugh us out of the room. One of the problems was we didn’t have street “creds.” Here we were talking about how policing ought to be done, but what did we actually know about their realities? We started going on patrol with police officers and did one hundred hours to see what it is they really do and to understand the situations they encounter.
When it came to homicide scenes, they were just waiting for us to turn pale and faint or throw up. That didn’t happen. Little by little, we started developing street creds, but that didn’t become evident until nearly 20 years later when Lee Brown became NYPD police commissioner and brought me back to work with him on some of the reforms that he was trying to introduce.
RL: And what year was that?
GB: It was 1990. He invited me to a meeting with the top brass of the police department to discuss his vision and to introduce me and the work I would be doing with him. A lot of the people in that room had been much younger and in lower ranks when we knew each other in the 1970s.
All of a sudden, we were swapping war stories. It no longer mattered that I was a woman. I was one of the “old timers” who had been there “back in the day.” It’s interesting how things evolve.
Last time I checked, 13% of the department was women and I suspect it’s a lot more now. And there is certainly a much greater level of acceptance. In the 1970s, we helped train the first women to go on patrol in New York City. We also worked on the issue of women in policing with the National Police Foundation in Washington. But the idea of women on patrol was bitterly fought, especially by the wives of police officers who were convinced that female partners were a threat to their marriage.
That was the NYPD chapter.
My next feminist adventure was the First Women’s Bank. I went to work there in 1984. I came in as chief marketing officer and then became head of private banking.
The First Women’s Bank was set up at a time when women could not get a credit card without a man signing for it. They could not sign a lease or get a loan without a man signing for it. Even if a woman was financially independent, she didn’t count. Young women today would never believe there was a time when a woman had to be that dependent financially on a man.
A year or two into my tenure, the First Women’s Bank was changed to First New York Bank for Business. A group of men had acquired the First Women’s Bank – not because they were interested in women’s issues but because they wanted the charter. It’s possible that the Bank’s mandate was no longer as relevant because, by then, women could sign for their own credit. But the investors who acquired the charter wanted to create their own business bank. In the end, the men managed to destroy the First Women’s Bank. It had been chugging along very nicely for fifteen years or so before the men got involved. It had people on the board, like the legendary Lucy Jarvis. I kept working for the bank until a year before it went under in 1990.
One of the innovative things we did at the First Women’s Bank was to establish the First Children’s Bank. It was created so that children would have a bank where they could make deposits and learn about money and saving. We had special First Children’s Bank CDs and all kinds of kid-related products. We opened the First Children’s Bank at FAO Schwarz, where we had a lovely little branch. Princess Diana was present for the launch. I remember standing next to her, star struck, as she gave the opening remarks. The First Children’s Bank was absolutely delicious while it lasted.
Neale Godfrey, who was president of the First Women’s Bank at the time I was hired, had an extraordinary sense of humor. She would tell this joke – she didn’t tell it as a joke; I’m just assuming it was a joke. But knowing Neale it was probably true. There were a group of Japanese bankers who came to the First Women’s Bank to study what we were doing. They asked Neale “What is the difference between a women’s bank and a regular bank?” Neale said the only difference is that we get cranky once a month and call all our loans.
That was the banking part of my journey. The next part of my journey started in 1992 with the death of my late husband, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum. I met him in 1981 – an extraordinary man, who was a pioneer in interreligious relations and a world-renowned human rights activist. Marc died seven weeks before our only child was born. I was starting to feel like an instant replay of my mother’s life, but Marc was a great inspiration to me. After he died, I decided that nothing that I had been doing professionally was as important as building on his work.
I had had a very interesting career – you heard about the police department work – as an academic, a broadcast journalist, author, and marketer. I’m one of the few people I know who can say that she has done everything she ever dreamed of doing in her career. But I felt that this was a time to give back. It was no longer about self-actualizing or my own ambition, so I founded the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding.
One of our signature programs is the Peacemakers in Action Program. That program is about making religion part of the solution to conflict instead of it always being the cause of conflict. Every two years, we cast a very wide net to identify religiously motivated individuals who are intervening in violent conflicts around the world. After they are nominated, a committee selects two of them. We now have a network of peacemakers around the world. But it became evident to us very early on that we were getting very few nominations for women.
Almost invariably, women are marginalized and sidelined when it comes to peacemaking. Yet they have played an extraordinarily important role in conflict resolution. Just one example is Northern Ireland: it wasn’t until the women took to the streets that headway was finally made in what ultimately led to the Good Friday Agreement. At first, we had a special category for only women peacemakers. After a few years we didn’t need that anymore because we started getting nominations for lots of women. If you were to go on the Tanenbaum.org website and click on the link to our peacemakers in action, you would find women very well represented there.
Conflict resolution, intergroup relations, and getting behind the headlines are the three main drivers of my career. They have always led me to the arenas in which I wanted to be a change agent. When the Syrian war broke out, I became drawn into that through the International Rescue Committee, one of the premiere refugee rescue, resettlement, and humanitarian aid organizations in the world. Marc had served as a long time Board member and helped organize the international rescue effort for the Vietnamese boat people. When he died, I offered to take his seat on the Board.
Forty years later, Syrians were the boat people. I.R.C. issued a report in January of 2013 on the Syrian crisis. Being a typical overextended New Yorker, that report sat on my desk for several months before I had time to open it. When I finally did, I was absolutely stunned by the magnitude of this crisis. What really grabbed me was the gender violence. First of all, 80% of Syrian refugees are women and children and those who aren’t refugees are still victimized because so many of their men are dead or absent. I read about the use of rape as a weapon of war, just as it had been in Bosnia. So many of the women who had fled had been raped multiple times and again when they finally reached “safety.”
I read about young girls who were married off in order to “protect” them from being raped, but of course they were being raped by the men they were married to. And their lives were put at risk because becoming pregnant at too early an age puts a woman’s life at risk. Most of Syria has been driven into poverty so some were married off young because their families couldn’t afford to take care of them anymore. Then I read about pious Muslim women who had no recourse but to sell their bodies in order to survive. I was horrified by the gender violence, which really resonated with me. I had been sexually assaulted in Boston when I was 18 years old and was terrified that I would be killed.
Even the chances of resettlement are difficult because, in that culture, the male is king. Those women who were registering with UNHCR for resettlement would register in their husband’s name or the oldest male relative’s name, not in their own name. If you’re not registered in your own name, you can’t get in the queue. There were so many factors here that victimized women in particular that I felt compelled to do something. I founded the Multifaith Alliance for Syrian Refugees, although that’s a misnomer, because we operate more inside Syria than we do outside Syria.
We’re now made up of more than a hundred organizations and have delivered more than one hundred and seventy million dollars in aid that has benefited over two million war victims. Included in that aid are goods that are very much focused on women: emergency hygiene kits, prenatal vitamins which are urgently needed. We have a special women’s program.
Those four phases – policing, banking, peacemakers in action, and Syrian war victims – are the stages of my feminist journey.
RL: When you came here around six years old, what languages were you speaking?
GB: I spoke French, German, Hungarian and Italian, and I forgot all of them within two months. My parents each spoke three or four languages, but the only one they spoke in common was German. I wouldn’t let my parents speak anything to me but English because I couldn’t stand being different from the other kids. But with the mixture of all those languages, I ended up with a Yiddish accent. Go figure! Of course that accent was long gone by the time I became a broadcast journalist at NBC. In those days, you had to speak “standard American” to be on camera.
RL: Wow that’s amazing. And you don’t speak any of the other languages now?
GB: I speak French, but I’m rusty because I don’t use it very often. But the aging brain is very interesting, I’m going to be 75 in a few months, so the brain is definitely aging. Hungarian keeps coming back to me from out of nowhere: a phrase, a sentence, a word. I’m making a record of every word, every phrase with the date that it came back to me. That’s a very compulsive thing to do but I am very compulsive. I’m fascinated that this language is spontaneously reemerging in me. Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages in the world because it’s not similar to any other language except Finnish. It’s all very strange.
RL: Your mother remarried then?
GB: My mother never remarried, but she had a longtime companion for more than 30 years.
RL: Thank you so much.
GB: Thank you so much. And I really appreciate your interest. Thank you.