THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Mary Beth Ross
“We are going to make sure our grandchildren have all the equal rights they could possibly discover.”
Interviewed by Mary Jean Collins, VFA Historian, July 2020
MBR: My name is Mary Beth Ross. I was born Mary Elizabeth. My parents thought that Mary Ross sounded like a name on a sample check, and they wanted me to have more than Mary, so it got to be Mary Beth. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, July 8th, 1942, during the war. My mother and father were both the youngest in their families. I’m the oldest in my family.
In terms of sibling rank having a great deal to do with your personality or character or life, I did notice that I was more like my mother’s older sisters. She had five older sisters and was the youngest of eight in an Irish Catholic family. My father was the youngest of four in his Scottish family. Both of them were second generation immigrants, which is significant. The Scots were more attached to Scotland than my Irish grandfather was.
His large family didn’t marry very early because of the war and the depression. They pooled money for a fiftieth wedding anniversary or something to send my grandfather and grandmother to Ireland, and he didn’t want to go. He said, I remember it as a depressing place. This is the great country. I only had 90 cents in my pocket when I came over, it’s the last time I didn’t have a dollar in my life. There’s an Irish joke regarding 90 cents to the dollar; that’s only 10 cents difference. But the difference for him was that his father had signed his birth certificate with an “x”.
My grandfather had only six years of education, but two of his daughters had passed the New York bar in the 1940s. So, education was a very important thing for an immigrant family. During the war my grandparents had a very large house in Brooklyn, it had been designed to be a two-family house, but they had so many children that they sometimes used the whole house.
When I was born, my grandparents lived on the ground floor. My father was away in the war, my mother and I lived on the second floor, and four of my aunts lived in the attic. Eventually they started getting married or moving away. Until they did, I was sort of the sorority mascot. When I was three years old, I had to recite a hundred-line AA Milne poem to the Bay Ridge Business and Professional women’s club that was having a tea at my house. I couldn’t read. Can you imagine how they had to work on me? I still remember about 70 percent of it because it was such an effort to burn it into my little brain.
MJC: You were their project.
MBR: I was. One of my aunts was a teacher, one of the ones who passed the bar didn’t practice law, she was a high school principal.
MJC: That’s a good beginning. So how did your life change as you became aware of feminism and the women’s movement?
MBR: After the war, we moved to Long Island, and I lived a typical 1950’s suburban life. I was a good athlete in order to relate to my father, who was a baseball nut, and we would play catch. I got to be very good. Because of that, I played with boys and the mystery of “varsity athletics” that seemed to enthrall most girls when they’re in high school didn’t awe me at all. I was a very good athlete.
I remember being irritated at not having any leagues that I could play in. I could only play in pickup games with the boys, who would let me play. There was no Little League for Girls. There were no girls’ sports teams in my high school. So, I remember feeling resentful about that, and my first awareness of feminist issues was when boys called me “girly” and were scornful when they had no right to be.
When we moved from Long Island to upstate New York, I mainly focused on school. I was sent to a Catholic school; my parents were from New York and they couldn’t believe that any school north of Yonkers could be any good. I came home from eighth grade one time with something I’d written and gotten an “A” on, and I had spelled “their” wrong. My mother said, “You didn’t spell this properly.” And I said, “Well, just say it out loud,” and was immediately sent to Catholic school.
MJC: So, they weren’t very good teachers in her view?
MBR: And things like spelling and handwriting were the signs of a good school? So, I went to a parochial high school, and then I went to a Jesuit college where my theology teacher was the anti-war priest, Daniel Berrigan. Here is where I developed a sort of social conscience. I think a lot of people did who came through the racial issues in the 60s and anti-war movements.
I married young, I won some prizes, I was a guest editor in chief of Mademoiselle magazine in 1964. I had drawn pictures of my 12 favorite men, and I had written little squibs to explain why I had chosen them. When I got down to the magazine, I had hoped that it was because of my drawing, but it was because of my writing. I was disappointed, because I thought I would go to graduate school in art. And No. My husband was already in graduate school, and he treated me like a secretary once we were married,
asking me to type his papers. So, there were issues. I had two children when I went to graduate school. I was still married; he was very helpful in terms of cooking and doing things in the house. But he was a young man of his generation, and I was his wife and I was not to outshine him. As Betty Friedan described it, the kind of isolation and invisibility that was suddenly my role, wore on me. I didn’t want my children to see it. I was going to visit my brother in Massachusetts and my husband was going to take care of the children. And my son said, “You can’t go, what if somebody drops something or something breaks?”
So, I got a teaching assistantship and I started teaching with two children in diapers. I didn’t want to get into the bog of an awful lot of graduate students and not finish a dissertation, so I made sure that I wrote a paper on the same theme in every course I took. My theme was the myth of Tiresias in Greek literature.
He had lived a life as a man until he tripped over and annoyed some Gods that were snakes copulating, and they changed him into a woman. The punishment is to be a woman. Years later, she happens upon them again and says, if there’s such magic in interrupting your love-making, I’m going to try it again, and she does, and they change her back into a man. So Tiresias is called on to settle an argument between Hera and Zeus about which gender enjoys sex more. Zeus claimed women had more fun, so men had to have more sex. Quantity vs quality. Tiresias agrees with Zeus.
I love the complications of this mythology; my dissertation was called Tiresias Their Muse: Studies in Sexual Stereotype in the English Novel. Hera is the classic Woman as Sensual-Irrational. She can see no advantage to her greater sexuality because she has to concede the argument. In irrational fury, she blinds Tiresias. Zeus can’t undo that. But he gives Tiresias prophetic vision. He’s the blind prophet in Odysseus and a lot of the other Greek literature.
Then I started getting called a women’s libber by my professors, my committee, my colleagues in the department. How do I know I was a feminist? Mainly I was tarred. In my prologue to my dissertation, I’m embarrassed to say, I use the dismissive term “women’s libber” myself to talk about the women involved in New York NOW. But in any case, I was looking for a job. I had my PhD. I asked my dissertation adviser and was the first person to create a course for women’s literature at Syracuse University. They had none. They had hardly any women professors.
I had no women on my dissertation committee. One of the men said that my dissertation was for a sociologist; he didn’t see why my themes about the politics of gender should be a literary dissertation. And then I got the only job that was advertised in The Chronicle of Higher Education in 1973 in all of upstate New York. The bottom had fallen out of the academic job market, and I was offered a job on a startup campus in Utica. I was offered the job on Christmas Eve, they called me “Take It or Leave it.” The salary was low, it was $10,000. Even back then that was low, lower than temporary jobs at the community colleges.
I said, “Does that salary reflect my degrees and experience?” I had a teaching assistantship, so I had about five years of teaching and a PhD, and the man said, “Yes, it does.” It was the only job – maybe in other years it wouldn’t be – but besides, it was Christmas Eve. Why wouldn’t I see it as a gift? So, I took it. It was in a former factory in a very poor section of Utica. It was a terrible looking place.
They were building a campus elsewhere. It was called the Upper Division College, and its purpose was to give people the liberal arts they hadn’t taken when they had two-year community college tech degrees, so they could get bachelor’s degrees. That included a lot of nurses. So, I taught a women’s lit course, we taught courses that would bring in the students.
For any research when you do a course, you try to have things in the library. Students are supposed to write a paper, so they have to have some kind of scholarly backup, and there was hardly anything. The only two women that showed up on a big series of audio recordings of American poets with 12 men were Adrienne Rich and Denise Levertov. And even then, there was hardly any scholarship about them, no one was writing about them. I could just pick off little things in the forwards of their books or something, but nothing serious.
I saw that as an obvious gender deficit, but also an opportunity for women scholars to start building up the scholarship about women writers. I had written about male writers because I could get material on them. I wasn’t there long, when one of my few colleagues saw my paycheck, and he asked if I were paid by the week. I was paid so little. He had been the head of the union down in Stony Brook, a lovely campus on the north shore of Long Island, very modern. We were in this awful factory with this rippling gold carpeting.
He called the union, and they said they couldn’t help me unless I joined, but they certainly could help me because I was paid the standard 25% less than the lowest-paid, equivalently-qualified white male. Meanwhile, they had given me all of the applications for the job I now held, because there were no administrators. On one application someone had written they had worked for Kennedy for senator, and it said in the margin, “sounds like a liberal.” Some woman had done a non-sexist textbook and in the margins, same handwriting, was written, “sounds like women’s libber.”
I gave those to the union, I copied them, and the union said, this is too big. It has to be a Human Rights Complaint, and if you don’t do this, you are letting down every woman who has come before you and anyone who might follow. Well, I had read an awful lot of Ivanhoe and Robin Hood, and I was the oldest of my family. I was in a rare position to win, so I did, and it made my life miserable.
I got physical threats. I had all of these nurses taking a women’s lit course at night, and the lights went out in the parking lot, and they were nervous, so I went to the head of the janitorial service in the college and told him there are lights out in the parking lot. And he said, “I’m not sure anyone here would care if something bad happened to you.”
My daughter was in gymnastics, and the studio was sometimes a karate class studio, and they had bumper stickers for that karate class, so I put a karate class sticker on my car. The dean took me out to lunch, and he said, you know, they like you here, you don’t want to do this, it is going to ruin your career. And I said, it can’t, because I have protections for having signed a Human Rights Complaint, and they can’t do that. And he said that’s not how it’s done, Mary Beth – you will be blacklisted. They don’t go by your resume; they have their own sources.
I said to him, “ Ted, I’m paid what a cocktail waitress would make, and I would rather be a cocktail waitress than see my career sabotaged by sexist, macho guys.” He was shocked. At that point they realized I was going to go the whole way; I was not going to be charmed out of it. Going the whole way meant years of terrible things. I had a wonderful lawyer from New York City, Elaine Berger. They said that my low salary had nothing to do with my gender. It was because of supply and demand: that other people made more money because they were in disciplines that had fewer candidates, but there were lots of candidates in English, so it drove down those salaries.
Elaine Berger asked where they got the data of the number of each discipline that was applying in that year? And they didn’t know, it was just a general surmise. Then we found a woman who was willing to testify. She hadn’t taken the job, but she had been interviewed as a biologist—the biologist was the lowest-paid, equivalently-qualified white male. And she had been offered $10,000 dollars too.
All I won was the difference between his salary and my salary for a year and a half. And I probably was blacklisted, and people said to me, you need to go into politics because you’re politically dirty. That’s how I got involved. I think it was May 17th, 1974. It may have been graduation day from this college, and I was driving home 40 miles from Utica back to where I lived in Cazenovia, New York.
One of the job possibilities was at a two-year women’s college in Cazenovia, even if it was only ten thousand dollars, what I would save in baby sitters and transportation and grief really made it an attractive thing. But I heard on the radio that the college had closed. The man announcing it on the radio was one of my father’s insurance agents, and he was also a state representative, Hy Miller. So, I wrote to him, and said I could put together a women’s studies program for Cazenovia College, a women’s college in the geographic-center of New York State, that the state university could run. The State University had the Forestry school at Syracuse University, a veterinary school at Cornell, and a ceramics school at Alfred.
Hy Miller wrote back, encouraging me, and I wrote to other New York State politicians like Mary Anne Krupsak and Donna Shalala. And I got lots of support. I created a whole curriculum, which was a lot of work because I also had a human rights suit going and was making sure they didn’t find anything else to nail me on in terms of my work record. Finally I was invited to speak to the Committee to Save Cazenovia College, where I met a man named Dan Sutton, who was always dragged out when there was a problem in the village of Cazenovia to help raise money. He was the scion of Sutton Real Estate, which was an enormously big Central New York commercial real estate enterprise, and he was a great guy. He lived on the lake; his daughter was in my daughter’s class.
He took my proposal to Albany, where they were going to talk to the Department of Education to save the college. He came back and said he was sorry, but my idea had been shot down because it was an upper level program; they were a two-year college. The state university would not allow them to extend their charter in order to save themselves. He asked if I still thought there was enough market for a program like this to help Cazenovia get out of the red. And I did. I said so.
He offered to help me market this, by giving me two thousand dollars for posters with tear off return postcards and the college’s bulk mail permit, to send out and see if there was a market for this, and I didn’t have to pay the two thousand dollars back. I did it, but I couldn’t do it myself. Rita Speicher, one of my grad school colleagues was running a women’s center off campus and a Women’s Writing Workshop.
We got a big book of all the colleges and universities in the country, and we sent these posters to every English department, every women’s center, every women’s studies thing. The address for the postcards to come back was Cazenovia, and Rita was still in Syracuse, so I had to go every other day to the post office and see how many postcards came back. I had a little recipe box the postcards would fit in in the trunk of my car and they filled it up.
I was actually alarmed because I hadn’t really thought this was going to fly and now I had a serious decision to make. I had won my human rights suit so I was guaranteed a job, however unpleasant they might make life for me. My mother hadn’t liked my signing my human rights suit, but she couldn’t believe that after that I would walk away from the job. And I did. That, I think, is the oldest child versus the youngest child. I had two children and I was getting a divorce so she couldn’t believe that I would…
MJC: Walk away from security.
MBR: Yeah. And it threw shade on her own parenting. Was I so spoiled that I had no idea what harsh reality was like? Anyway, that’s the thing I am probably proudest of: I’m the creator of the Women’s Writers Center that brought almost every noted 20th century American woman writer to Cazenovia for a week to teach and to give a public reading: Olga Broumas, Rita Mae Brown, Sally Daniels, Elizabeth Fisher, Susan Griffin, Bertha Harris, Maxine Kumin, Rhoda Lerman, Denise Levertov, Audre Lorde, Kate Millet, Marge Piercy, Adrienne Rich, Muriel Rukeyser, Susan Sherman, Lyn Lifshin, Judy Grahn.
Over the five years, every sixth week they would be on campus. It was a fantastic thing, and the enthusiasm that they had for it was part of the wonderful motivation. But in 1979 the applications suddenly dropped off – that was the oil embargo. I think people were very worried about leaving and going back to their jobs – would their jobs still be there?
That’s my contribution to American feminism. I do think we jogged the gender balance in American literature and American universities a little bit, because by 1979, the other problem was we were having trouble getting women to commit to a full week during the academic year. They had jobs.
MJC: So, the situation of women changed a lot in that same period.
MBR: That’s right. They were always available in’76, ‘77, ‘78, but by ‘79 they were getting jobs in English departments.
MJC: Did the women’s studies idea then get picked up by others?
MBR: I had two children and was concerned about getting remitted tuition exchanges for them by going back into a regular university. Syracuse University did have more women professors, and they did have women’s literature courses in the six years I had been gone. I would have been happy to do the same thing elsewhere. Whenever I did get a job, as soon as March 8th rolled around, they would ask me to call my contacts, and I would bring Marge Piercy and Kate Millett, June Jordan onto their campus. They would get paid, but they would do it largely as a favor to me because “sisterhood was powerful.”
MJC: Was any of that ever recorded?
MBR: I just made a film about it.
MJC: Tell us about that.
MBR: It starts with a page in an old-fashioned typewriter, with the phrase: Riding the Second Wave. And then it goes back, and it X’s out “riding” and it types, Writing the Second Wave, the story of the Women’s Writers Center. I just put it up this past week on Vimeo. The link is on my website www.mbrstudio.org. It’s a feature length documentary with over one hundred photographs of all of those writers, and they’re all young, and they’re so happy.
I was hoping I would get a way to send it to Gloria, because I thought that she would be pleased to see so many of those New York writers. I’ve been asked to show it at the Berkshire Women in History conference, but they didn’t have it this year. Film festivals are being canceled.
MJC: Tell us more about how your life unfolded after that.
MBR: I left the Women’s Writers Center for Rita Speicher and Rachel deVries to carry it along. They could survive lean years, but my kids were now adolescents, so I just couldn’t take a chance. I went back to Syracuse University and started working on another degree, in linguistics, because if you were teaching, you could get free tuition. And I was trying to improve my job prospects. I even went to England on a post-doc, studying Celtic languages. I have a theory that English is a lot more Celtic than the Oxford English Dictionary and Anglo-Saxon-biased histories of English concede. It was my last attempt at a purely academic career.
At any rate I was trying to find a place, another niche for myself, and in 1986 when I returned from England, I got a job as Syracuse Mayor Tom Young’s speechwriter. Syracuse is Democratic, but the upstate New York is Republican. In addition to speeches for the mayor, I wrote grants, I wrote an awful lot of historical markers. I wrote a bunch of things. And I sat for endless phone banks. They don’t do this stuff anymore, but you’d go to the Ironworkers Union, use their phones, and you’d call everybody and drive them to the polls.
I got very interested, as did my son, in grassroots politics. I later worked for a national organization called The National Faculty. It was a spinoff of an NEH programs that helped teachers all around the country in floundering districts. An awful lot of teachers are teaching outside of any subject matter that they ever studied. So, we would get them up to speed in an actual discipline. We weren’t teaching education; we were teaching subject matter. And it was almost entirely men, so my job there was to recruit women scholars.
I worked for them for nine years until somebody embezzled money in their Atlanta home office and it was thrown into bankruptcy. But then I worked for Philander Smith College; it’s an Historically Black College in Little Rock, and I ran their honors program. By that time, working in politics, I was really aware of how computers were beginning to democratize media. I wanted those African-American students to know how to use a camera.
I was on the board of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival because I could raise money, get grants. Their documentaries would always show minorities as pathetic, and I thought if you put a camera in their hands, what story would they want to tell? It wouldn’t necessarily be about poverty and disadvantage. So that’s what I’ve done since. I am a filmmaker, as you know, and I had to learn how to do it because I couldn’t afford to pay men to do it and they weren’t interested in what I wanted to do anyway.
So, I have been pushing for women and minorities to learn how to do it themselves: make films, tell their own story. I play politics, and I support all kinds of women’s film things. Until recently when I had to quit to help finish this film, I was on the executive board of my local county arts council. The director is an African-American woman. Those are the people that I’ll write grants for.
MJC: So, you’re now in North Carolina?
MBR: I’m in a suburb of Charlotte. I like Charlotte. I’m proud that our governor would not allow people to endanger their own lives in our city.
MJC: Are you currently involved as an activist outside of your filmmaking?
MBR: Just the Arts Council and Democratic politics. I get hundreds of emails asking for money for candidates from all across the country. But we’ve got three important races here. We’ve got the governorship; we’ve got someone who’s challenging Thom Tillis, so I have my hands full with those things. I always volunteer for the local candidates to do any kind of PSA’s or campaign 30-second stuff. And nowadays they put it on a website. You don’t even have to spend money putting it on television.
MJC: Is there anything with memories of the women’s movement that we haven’t talked about yet?
MBR: I was very close for years to Kate Millett. She had been our first scholar, and we had an awful lot of similarities. She had the same nuns, the same Irish Catholic background, the same stigma. My father was Protestant, and I felt that in Catholic schools as a sort of stigma. Her father was divorced from her mother, so her first stigma was not being gay, it was being a child of divorce in a Catholic environment like that. We used to sing all of the Catholic school songs together. Through her I met Jacqui Ceballos; Kate was very fond of her. Kate asked me to make a video of her, and I have an enormous amount of footage of her that I’d be happy to give to VFA.
I also remember some famous feminists from New York City saying how brave they felt when they had marched and picketed The New York Times about the gendered classifieds ads, and I thought to myself, yeah, well, you just park your car in a parking lot in Utica, New York, and ask them to fix the lights if you want to know what’s scary about being a feminist. Marching in Times Square is fun!
MJC: I’m glad you’ve shared your story with us. It’s an important story. And I really thank you. I’ve loved meeting you. Any final words?
MBR: I have two children, and my son and his wife just adopted two little girls out of the foster care system in Massachusetts. They’re charming and we are going to make sure that they have all of the equal rights that they could possibly discover.