Dr. Paula Rayman

“From that moment in 1972, I have never been without a women’s group.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, August 2021

PR:  My name is Paula Rayman. It’s always been, it’s my family name, and I’ve had it my whole life. 

JW:  Where and when were you born?

PR:  I was born in February 1947, post war baby. And I was born in New York City. And that was a great place to live as a young child.

JW:  Tell us about your childhood and influences, anything you think led you to the career and who you became.

PR:  I came from a wonderful set of parents that deeply affected my entire orientation towards life. My mother had had polio during the epidemic of 1916, and, in her own words, was “differently abled” her whole life and rejecting the concept of only disabled people being handicapped. My mother, who put herself through Brooklyn College during the 1930s, when very few women went to college, came up with the term “differently abled” after having been called lots of different names during her growing up. But she thought that she,  because of her differently ableness, would not find a spouse.

And while that was going on, my dad, who was 20 years older than my mom and who had come to the United States to escape the Czar right before World War I – my father fought in World War I. And during the 1930s, after coming to this country, he went back and rescued his parents and two of his siblings, the rest of whom unfortunately perished during the Holocaust. So, I’m a result of two people that thought they would never get married. My father was in his fifties by the time he met my mom.

What they had strongly in common was a dedication to making the world a better place and more safe for everybody. And the inclusiveness of their vision deeply affected my own growing up. Unfortunately, my father, who was quite a bit older when he became a dad, died when I was a teenager, and my mother became a single parent, raising myself and my sister. And she was another awesome example. It was before we had the term “single moms.” But there she was. And she had gone back when she was 50 years old to get her MA in special education. And she was one of the founders of the Head Start program in the United States.

She realized very early on also something that became a theme in my own life, the relationship between economic security and human rights. And she said, I can’t teach these kids if they haven’t eaten breakfast in the morning. I mean, really, she used to schlep, and we helped her put together these bags of food in the morning that she used to take with her to school. And she became the President of the New York State Teachers Association for emotionally disturbed and handicapped children. Out of that was the origin of the Head Start program.

From my parents, just to conclude about the importance and the advantage and blessings of having been raised in a family that understood that the way they translated our Jewish background was not just only in any religious terms of celebrating holidays and cultural events. But really, you’re on this Earth to leave it better, and to leave a more just world, and you have an obligation while you are alive, to do that. By the time I was a teenager, I had already received that message. 

JW:  And when did you get involved in the women’s movement and how did that happen?

PR:  Well, I think in an important way, Judy, the fact is, although my mother didn’t call herself a feminist, I had not just my mom, but I came from a matriarchal family. My mom had four sisters, all of whom were women of a commitment, making things happen, et cetera. And it was very interesting from those five sisters they had ten daughters, and the ten daughters produced another set on the grandchildren level, ten daughters. And we (my sister) finally had the first son, whose name is Adam, not surprisingly. I would say, as a background to my own mural, coming from a family where women were empowering each other from sister to sister, from mother to child, etc., was a part of it.

It wasn’t until I went to college that I had the second wave awakening, I think, that you’re referring to. But I already had a sense that the notion of power “with” rather than power “over” was really important. And I would say the turning point for me of engagement was, I was very active as a teenager in the civil rights movement down south and that activism then, of course, became embraced with the anti-war movement in the 1960’s.

I was a member of SDS, which, unfortunately, was too patriarchal for a lot of us women, as was, by the way, the civil rights movement, a lot of the black male leadership. I think that what happened to a lot of us that had had political engagement as younger women from high school, let’s say, and all of that, that the rubber met the mat when we began to realize that while we had been engaged politically in civil rights and then antiwar, that women were still not achieving or getting the recognition they deserved, and a lot of doors were still closed at the end of the 1960’s.

I had a boyfriend at that time. And in the beginning of that relationship, I thought that my job in the world was to type his papers and to help him with his career. And I remember the time, I was a junior in college, I went to Hunter College in New York City, and we were closing down the colleges for the anti-war movement, and a bunch of women got together. And it was at the end of the 1960’s, and Andrea Dworkin and other women were beginning to really speak out about violence against women, about the need for women to act more in solidarity with each other.

I went, after I graduated my senior year, to Israel, lived on a kibbutz for a year, and it changed my life, because I went there thinking it was going to be a socialist, utopian community. What I discovered, Judy, was that women were doing the child care, the laundry in the kitchen, as this kind of new recruit to the Kibbutz, I wanted to work in the fields. I wanted to be in the pardez, which is the field, and so I went on strike. I created the first woman strike on the kibbutz and said that there are guys that would love to work with the young little kids and that we could exchange places. That was the real beginning of my activism was there.

And I wound up coming back to the States at the end of 1971. Sisterhood Is Powerful had come out by Robin Morgan. We were beginning to have our own literature. I came back. I moved from New York up to Boston to go to graduate school. And I wrote my whole dissertation on what was going on in the kibbutz. You can’t have socialism and you can’t have utopia if women aren’t equal. I mean, that was really the beginning.

I joined my first women’s consciousness raising group, and that was essential and a real also deepening of understanding what the second wave of feminists meant. I was in a group, including people like Ellen Bass, who became a famous poet and wrote the book Courage to Heal. It was just a wonderful group of women. We all worked at a place called Project Place together in the Boston area that had a special project called New Community Projects.

And as part of that, the women in the group were – this was very unusual for the women’s movement at that time – we were reaching out to women of color, not just the white women in Cambridge. And that consciousness raising group led me to understand very much more deeply the term, Judy, that kind of was our flag, “the personal is the political and the political is the personal,” and we were eating it, drinking it, living it, supporting each other through it. And from that moment on, from that moment in 1972 on, I have never been without a women’s group in my entire life, and it’s now always been the same group of women.

I went to that group, which is based in [the] workplace, to my next women’s group that met every Wednesday night for four years. And that’s a group where we all decided if we were going to get married or have children, and we did it collectively, and it went on and on. And so, one of the lessons from that early age is that, I think it deeply affected [me]. We were young, we were in our 20s, but it set a pathway. For me, I felt very fortunate that I had a mother that had already shown the light on that pathway. For other women who didn’t, we really informed each other. We really learned a lot.

I want to just tell you a side story on that. It’s kind of funny. I remember when I was in graduate school, I decided to study labor economics. I was very interested in women and work issues, and that really became a major theme throughout my whole life and something that I’ve written a lot about. And we can talk about that later. But one of the things that when I went to talk to my mom about it was, I was working on my PhD and whatever. And she looked at me. She said, “You know, Paula, this women’s movement stuff is great. I’m really glad you’re working on equality for women. But I need to tell you one thing. I really don’t care if you marry somebody from a different race, a different religion. I don’t care.” You know in those days you couldn’t marry a woman. “But if you’re a lesbian, that’s okay. I just want to tell you, I want grandchildren.”

So, my mom kind of set the standard of I did it. I was a single mom. I had two kids. Get the PhD. But don’t forget the children. She was amazingly ahead of her time. And it was before, I think, in the 1970s, women, as you know from Our Bodies, Ourselves – and I was very close to the collective. I wasn’t one of the original members, but I was in the second circle around it with Judy and Wendy and the whole group. And we were really focusing on getting to know our own bodies for goodness sake, at that point, which was a very political act of being responsible, health wise and whatever.

I wound up, because of Our Bodies, Ourselves and that group having two home births. And we wrote a manifesto about all the things that women needed to have healthy and good births that reflected feminist values. So, it kind of all fit together. But beyond that kind of recognition of things we needed to learn about ourselves and our bodies, in those early days of the second way of feminism, we still kind of figured out as a movement or individually how to do other things.

We were largely a white group of women, and we really weren’t totally integrated with our women of color sisters. That took a while to kind of move towards that. And the other thing, in terms of gender identity, many of us were still wrestling with should I get married? Do we all have to be heterosexual? What does it mean to be together with our lesbian sisters? Half of my initial women’s group, the first one I mentioned, half of those women, even after they got married, eventually left their husbands and came out as lesbian.

But it was still new. It was still scary. And it was not necessarily accepted. And when we had Stonewall and we had the emergence of the gay movement, I mean, I think that the women’s movement began to – in terms of feminism, that second wave – really think about a lot of things that Andrea Dworkin in particular, who became a very close friend of mine, was thinking of, in terms of the real radical, transformative nature of the second wave of feminism, to open doorways of exploration – that we really needed to get serious about that.

In the beginning, we didn’t quite understand. And it took at least a decade for many of us to understand how radical some of our thinking was, in transforming power relationships. And how we work and who we love. And how we can protect ourselves. And I think we began to really struggle with how do we create safe spaces? Do we have institutions that really guarantee us respect and dignity? How do we create that in our lives, in both work and our private lives? So, I think that going back to the personal is political, that, again, is something that I think is so important today. It’s a theme that we rose up and began to rise up with in the 70’s and that we are still about today.

JW:  So, let me ask what other things you got involved with when you got your PhD, and beyond.

PR:  After I finished the PhD, I started working on a project called The Private and Social Costs of Unemployment. And I was looking at unemployment in the aircraft and parts industry. And there’s a whole story of why I chose that. Then I went out to Flint, Michigan, and lived there for three months and studied the auto workers. Then I went to Mon Valley in Pennsylvania and studied the steel workers. And all these industries were just shutting down and creating ghost towns in America. And I was in the beginning just focused on guys, because they made up the majority of the aircraft and auto industry and the steel industry.

And then, Judy, meanwhile, [I was] going to my women’s groups and consciousness raising. And finally, in one of the economic meetings, by the way, in those days, many young women were told, oh, girls don’t do math. I mean, Larry Summers had the audacity in the year 2000 to repeat that. And thank God he didn’t last long as the Harvard President. But I was one of the few women that was doing economics. There was Heidi Hartmann.

The women economists out there, we all knew each other, because there weren’t that many of us. And we were all beginning to do something very radical and exciting. We started putting things into the equations that the guys thought were kind of stupid, which included, for me, I was studying unemployment, the private and social. I said, well, what about women that are unemployed? “They’re not real serious workers. They’re getting pin money.” I said, no, no, no. So that was really one of my first, in terms of work, I started really focusing on the meaning of work in women’s lives.

I wrote an article about that for something called Working Papers. There was a group of guys [who didn’t understand] the meaning of work in women’s lives. And what I proposed at that time, and by now we’re in the 1980’s, was that work is as important – when I say work, both paid and unpaid labor, because we were really looking at that intersection. Women still do 80% to 90% of all the caregiving, whether they’re paid caregivers or whether they’re doing unpaid care work for people in their lives. And the recognition of the importance of that work, of the women’s contribution, including reproductive rights, having children in society.

But at the same time, women were doing very important work and not being recognized, not getting paid equally. This is equal pay for equal worth. All of that movement, pay equity, all of this. I met Roz Feldberg at that time. There were so many people in the area that I was living in, in the Boston area. And we all started coming together and we were meeting together, and we had our own little institutions. And this was very important. We had really taken over a kind of two block area of Cambridge. We had the Turtle Cafe. We had New Words bookstore. We had places to meet with each other and talk about these ideas as we were working on them.

And I began interviewing, very much what you’re doing, Judy. Women from all kinds of work-path lives about the meaning of work. And what was kind of startling about the interviews and putting this together and becoming part of many women collectives around women and work, was that women were as deeply attached to the work that they were doing as men [were]. And this was really, if you can imagine, that was a radical idea, that women cared, and we’re committed. And we’re as good as, if not better than a lot of the guys around then. Across industries, from the manufacturing sector to the service sector to the emerging information and technology sector that was just beginning to emerge in the late 1980s etc.

So that really became a framework. And that led me to two things. And then I’ll pause, and you can ask questions. I became involved in [the question of] how do we translate what we are learning and knowing about our personal work lives and create better public policy? How do we make sure that women get pay equity? We were making $0.70 to the dollar compared to men. So, I began to work on the Family Medical Leave Act. And I worked very closely with Hillary Clinton and a whole bunch of people, many of whom I’m sure you’re interviewing and that you know, and we worked very hard.

We worked 14 years. And the bill that we came out with was not what we really wanted. We wanted paid leave. We didn’t get that. We got twelve weeks of unpaid leave. But at least it was the beginning of that march. And I must say we need to get back to that march because right now we’re doing it state by state. But we’ve got a long way to go and we need that torch to be passed on.

And the other thing that happened to me was I was a professor during the 1980s at Wellesley College. I was blessed, really, to be in a great women’s institution by and for women, made a huge difference, because all the young women there were really there to be empowered and become the best they could be. And it’s not by mistake or just by the side that so many of the women that we know that took leadership roles in the 1990s in the early part of this century came out of Wellesley College, women like Judy Woodruff, and they came out of women’s colleges. And because they had been given this space to have a voice in setting their own pathways and lives.

I taught there for ten years with people like Susan Reverby, I don’t know if you’ve interviewed her yet, who headed women’s studies. And it was a marvelous place. It was a real petri dish of how to create pathways. And I became very involved with a project called Pathways for Women in the Sciences. And that’s something that I’ve also put a lot of work in, in the last 35 years. Women in STEM fields, science, technology, engineering, and math, and really promoting women’s progression and leadership in that. And at that time, I met a wonderful person named Linda Wilson at the National Research Council, who is a woman scientist. And she asked me to have lunch with her. This was at the end of the 1980’s.

And she said, “Paula, I’m going to become the President of Radcliffe. And I would like to start a public policy Institute. Would you be interested? I want you to create a vision. I want you to write a paper. I want you to bring it to the board. Let’s explore this.” And so, we started the Public Policy Institute. We had lift off in the early 1990s, and the Radcliffe Institute became one of the few places in the United States where women from all different fields, Judy, from the humanities, from the arts, from science and tech areas, women who were reporters could take a year off, get paid and have some space to do something they really wanted to do. So, the Radcliffe fellowships really enable people to do that. And our goal, the vision, it was a real team effort.

It wasn’t just me being the founding director. I had the most wonderful set of women and supporters around me, including some really good guys, I have to say. And that’s another lesson, that feminist men exist. And a lot of us had raised feminist sons, etc., etc. And with the help of that cohort… And it was really very tied into national movements that were going on at that time on different policy issues, around domestic violence, around reproductive rights, around equity for women at work, and really beginning to integrate women of color and making sure that we had one project about creating voices of women of color to be advocates for themselves.

We had women law students from Harvard Law School coming and helping low income women be able to fight their cases against eviction. Some of the things we’re working on now during the pandemic. But it was a wonderful space and a wonderful place to invent new ways of thinking about public policy and the feminist movement. And finally, just to say one wonderful moment was I was invited by President Clinton to come and be part of the team that helped to write the State of the Union address during his tenure as President.

There were some wonderful women and other men that became part of this team and to be part of that and with whatever people might think of Hillary Clinton, she cared a great deal about the future of women’s lives. And she made sure that a lot of the issues that we were all working on in our scholarship, in our daily work, etc., got put into those speeches, got actualized. And it was being done because really, I would say hundreds of thousands of women across the United States by the 1990s really felt themselves as being part of a movement greater than just themselves.

It wasn’t that they were just doing the work by themselves and for themselves, but really trying to create a social change. And I was there at Radcliffe until Harvard took over Radcliffe, very unfortunately. We made a huge mistake. We had a 300-million-dollar endowment given by women for women for Radcliffe, for the Schlesinger Library, for the Murray Research Center that housed a lot of interviews like what you’re doing. We had the Public Policy Institute. We had Phyllis Stein hitting the Career Services. That was fabulous, a fabulous gift for women who were always thinking about their next steps and what they could do.

We should have just withdrawn from Harvard and just remained Radcliffe Institute by and for women. But a decision was made by a board that we didn’t control to sell out to Harvard. And I think it’s very sad because there really is no place like that in the United States at the current time, a place where women from all different class, race, ethnic, areas of concern, background, could come and be celebrated, and do their work and have some time off to create something that otherwise they wouldn’t have the space to do.

When that was taken over, many of us continued our work in different institutions. Having those buildings – and the Bunting Institute that was started by Polly Bunting in the 1960s, when she recognized that Harvard did not respect women, that it was really a patriarchal institution, as most academic institutions still are. That aside from a few of the women’s colleges that were left, and there were very few of them that were still left. Most of them had closed, went broke, had closed.

Barnard had become part of, even though it had some freedom, it became part of Columbia. There was Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke and Smith and Wellesley. But there was no longer any seven sisters. And I’m very sad. It’s a sad recollection that we somehow didn’t understand and didn’t mobilize enough to keep that women’s institution going. Yes, it’s a sad moment, I think, for the second wave of feminism, that we had a place that really we could create a safe space for all kinds of women to find their voice, from Angela Davis to Andrea Dworkin to people that had done a lot of work on the history of women in various enterprises.

What remains is the Schlesinger Library. And I’m thinking that some of the interviews that you’re doing, that we should find a way to make sure that that gets cataloged.

JW:  Absolutely. So, I’m hearing that you are still an activist, and what’s happening currently for you?

PR:  When Radcliffe closed, I was fortunate enough. It’s a message that I would like to share with a lot of younger generation people, that I was fortunate enough to have an amazing network of women feminists that were activists. And I also had a very large National Science Foundation grant that was worth a lot of money. It was like a million-dollar grant to continue my work of looking at studying women in science, technology and engineering fields. And so, because I had that grant that was mine, that came with an overhead for whatever college took me in, I had many job offers. And because I had such a great women’s network behind me and supporting me, I decided to make a move that I had been thinking about for a long time.

I had been in two very elite schools. I had been at Wellesley College, and then I was at Radcliffe, and that was like the bulk of 20 years’ worth of scholarship and work. Being a Hunter girl and coming out of the public sector colleges and their origin for my life, I wanted to go back and work in the public university sector. So I took a job at UMass, University of Massachusetts. I was there for 17 years. I retired in 2017. Wonderful people there. Absolutely top notch – could compete with the folks at Harvard or MIT or whatever, any day. And there was a center for Women in Work where I had much earlier given a keynote speech about, “yes, you can.” Even before Obama had said it!

I was speaking to women, and with the center for Women in Work, and I will give you the name of the woman who is still kind of directing it. She’s still out there. I set kind of a new pathway for myself, a new set of engagement, to forward women lives. And I became the founding director of the Peace and Conflict studies programs at University of Massachusetts. And my focus was based on the idea that politically, women’s leadership was essential, if we were going to be moving away from constant war, from ways for people killing themselves and each other. And the Peace and Conflict Studies program got a lot of support from the University. It was originally just a graduate program, an MA, but also then expanded to be a BA/MA program.

I began work abroad, Judy. I started traveling to conflict areas around the world, working with grassroots women leaders, who were working to create empowerment for women, but were also working against depression and against violence against women. I became very active with a group of women at the United Nations that was working on UN Resolution 1322, which was the first time the United Nations passed any regulation that said violence against women is illegal and particularly during war situations where rape and awful things were being done with women.

The two countries that I wound up, I got a Fulbright scholarship in 2008, and I spent part of the time in Northern Ireland with the Northern Ireland women who are the ones really responsible for the 1999 peace, the Good Friday agreement. George Mitchell was there. But if the four Protestant and two Catholic women, if the Protestant women and the Catholic women hadn’t joined each other and had the courage to march down Falls Road together and said, “Enough, no more, put down the guns,” to the Sinn Fein and to the Unionists, we would have never had the Good Friday agreement. I interviewed all those women, by the way. I did what you’re doing there.

And I became a visiting scholar, really, for life. I still have a visiting scholar appointment at Queen’s University in Belfast. And I was supposed to go back last year, but of course, I couldn’t because of the pandemic, but I’m hoping to go back and we’re hoping to have a women’s conference of active women leaders there in Fall of 2022. I also had a Fulbright scholarship to Israel/Palestine, and I had already done some work with Israeli women called Women Waging Peace that started there and reached really an amazing group of 30,000 women in 2014, 2015, that went on a march from Jericho to Jerusalem, and all sorts of women were involved. Muslim, Christian and Jewish women, handicapped, differently abled women, women that were religious, women that were secular.

All these women had the same goal, which was “peace now.” And of course, we know that did not emerge, unfortunately, yet. But my belief and where I am today just to move towards this, my hope is that I’m going to be able to get back on the ground. I love doing this work. I love doing the kind of a combination of economic empowerment which is very important for sustainability of these women’s lives. So, it’s kind of my old work of the importance of women and work. But it comes back around now to the best way to raise the GNP (gross national product) of any country is to raise the literacy of women.

And one way to raise literacy of women is to make sure that they’re engaged in decision making in their local villages and in their local lives and are respected. So, I’ve worked with really hundreds, maybe a few thousand women at this point, of doing training. I do non-violent active training for women in conflict situations. And also, I teach one course a year as part of the Peace and Conflict Studies program.

I have students from all over the world that are part of that. Last fall we did it on Zoom. But I have students that have come through the Liberian overthrow of Charles Taylor. Leymah Gbowee, who then went on and got a Nobel Prize; we had no idea that Leymah was going to get the Nobel Prize when I met her. And I have a student who’s doing absolutely marvelous work in Rwanda after the genocide there. I have a cohort of students that are working in Cambodia on the documentation project of the killing fields, working together with a colleague on Myanmar and what’s going on with the Rohingya right now. But it’s been a privilege. It’s been a blessing. At this point in my life, I’m in my 70’s now, and I will not ever stop working. The second wave awakening continues.

JW:  So how do you think those consciousness raising groups, let’s say, affected your whole life, to who you are today?

PR:  I think that’s such a great question. It’s a wonderful question, Judy. I think that my granddaughter would say, Grandma, you can’t do it all by your alone. I think that’s the beginning of what those consciousness raising groups did, they gave us a sense that the inner problems, the personal issues, that whatever family issues – I had lost my dad – leaving boyfriends that didn’t treat us well or equally. The issues we were having about our bodies; we didn’t like our bodies. They were too fat. They were too thin. They were too this, they were too that.

All of those kinds of personal things that people had, especially as teenagers growing up. Very few women I know as teenagers had a great time. Everybody was in struggle, and all of a sudden to find yourself with a group of women who could trust each other, who could share the most intimate details of your life, who could raise the most important questions. How do I make a decision about what I study? What am I going to be when I grow up? What do I want? What do I need? All those questions. To have a safe space allowed each of us that were in those groups, and I have it today in my next step group.

This group has been meeting now for 14 years, and it was a group who found ourselves in our 60’s figuring out what are our next steps? Where do we go? I mean, some of us were becoming grandmas. Some of us were thinking about do we keep working in the same path. People were unsure. So, this next step group represents that earlier consciousness. All of us are coming out of this. We were no longer in our twenties. We were in the last quarter of our lives now and looking at the future. And I think it’s given us, and I would say for myself as an individual, a sense of resiliency.

Resiliency is something that you don’t get all by yourself, all by our alone. You need to feel that other people have your back, that other people are there for you. Through the good times, the bad times, all the troubled times, and certainly in the world that we live in right now, which is so scary, so scary on so many levels. For those of us in the United States, we are experiencing what many women have experienced in conflicted areas in the world, coming through the Trump era, coming through this time of greater misogyny, of greater hate, of greater fear, coming through this time of Black Lives Matter, of coming through this time of recognizing elements of our own white racism, that having a consciousness raising group is still as necessary as always.

Honestly, as much as I love both my husbands – I lost my first husband in 2001; he died very suddenly; and I have a second, wonderful feminist husband. I do not know how I would have survived a lot of the things that I’ve been through. I’m a cancer survivor. So, the healing circles and the feminist circles around that have been very extraordinary for me as well. And that’s a whole other kind of piece of my life. I’m very involved in that.

But a simple answer to your question is that those consciousness raising groups that continue to today have really created a sense of a place for me, that I otherwise would have never been able to experience in my life. I’m very grateful. I’m very, very grateful for all the women in my life. And I want to thank you so much for, I haven’t reflected like this in a while, but for taking on this project, and I will be more than happy to support you and work with you and the Veteran Feminist group to make sure that we find a way to hand the learnings from all that you’re doing to as many of the next generations that are coming through as we can.