THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Eleanor Foa Dienstag
“The feminist movement transformed my life as a wife, mother, sister, daughter and writer.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, October 2021
EFD: I’m Eleanor Foa Dienstag. I was born in Naples, Italy, in April of 1938, and I’m sitting here in my apartment in New York City, my beloved New York City.
JW: When did you come to this country?
EFD: We came to this country as refugees in August of 1940, one step ahead of fascism, of Mussolini, Hitler, and so forth.
JW: What was your life like as a child and a young woman, before you got interested in women’s issues?
EFD: Well, I think I was always a feminist, basically. I always wanted to work. I was serious about my career. At the very beginning, I was in book publishing. I got married young, as we did in those days. I was 20. I loved my job at Harper’s, the book publisher, and they seemed to like me a lot. And then one day there was a recession and I was fired because I was a woman. And it became clear that they were waiting for me to get pregnant. I remember the first time I had a cold or the flu and I was out of the office. I came back and my office mate wanted to know whether I was pregnant. So that was my big awakening.
JW: When was that?
EFD: Well, it was one of my first jobs. It was like 1960, and I really was taken aback by what I began to realize was the prejudice against working women. And I finally left book publishing, and I went to a magazine of political satire, that was run by people my own age and who didn’t seem to discriminate. But I think I was already kind of interested in women’s issues and how other women negotiated their way in the world. I was freelancing while I was pregnant and had my children.
I fell in love with Doris Lessing and all of those things and started writing about women and reviewing women’s books that were like me. But the thing that really transformed me was when my husband, at the time in 1970, took a job in Rochester, New York, which to me might as well have been the moon. I had to leave New York, and I really was very reluctant to do that. I didn’t know how to drive. I’d never been to a shopping mall. I was a real New Yorker, so that was a big shock.
And everybody expected that I should go. I wasn’t earning a living. I wasn’t supporting us. I was working, but I wasn’t supporting us. All of these things led me to become a feminist. And then there was a sort of transforming moment. And that was when I returned to New York in the summer of 1970 with my two children. And I was walking down the street with my mother and the two children and a carriage. And suddenly I saw this women’s march taking place.
I hadn’t been aware of it. But there it was. And of course, I knew immediately what it was. And I said to my mother, I have to join this march. Here’s the baby. I’ll see you later. And that was kind of the beginning. It was a transforming moment for me.
It was the major march. It was in August of 1970. And after that, I went back to Rochester. I joined NOW. I became active. I was a freelancer. And the women’s movement completely transformed me as a wife, as a mother, as a sister, as a writer, as everything. And it gave me a path forward that I really hadn’t had before. When I was in Rochester, I started covering sit-ins. I participated in sit-ins, all of which was very radicalizing, as you can imagine. When men throw you out of a restaurant, you really get very angry about it.
So that’s what happened. And by the way, I got a Women’s Unite shopping bag at that march, and I framed it, and it’s still in my bedroom. I’m leaving my papers to the Sally Bingham Center at Duke University. And at a certain point, I hope to send that Women’s Unite shopping bag to them as well as all of my things. It meant a lot to me.
JW: What did you do with all this newly found knowledge of the world?
EFD: I wrote a book called Whither Thou Goest, and it stemmed from an article that I wrote in Ms. Magazine, which was the whole story of being uprooted because of your husband’s career. And nobody had ever written a book from the woman’s point of view, from the wife’s point of view. And then a lot of things happened as a result of moving to Rochester. The company that my husband moved to turned out to be run by brothers who were crooked. And there was a bankruptcy and a bankruptcy hearing and all sorts of things happened.
And all of this was in the book. But writing the book and then promoting the book gave me a newfound courage that I’d never had before, because like most writers, I’m an introvert, and doing all those things made me feel that I could really stand on my own two feet. And in 1974, I walked away from my 17-year marriage with my two children and hardly any money. And eventually, after a child custody fight and looking for a job for three years, I moved us back to New York, and I got a job as a speech writer for the CEO of American Express.
I’d never written a speech in my life except for myself promoting my book. But I’d been a history major, and I just had the feeling that I could do this. And I did. I had that job for five years. But I wasn’t happy in corporate America. I joined a group of women who were thinking about and talking about issues around work and decided after five years, in 1983, to go into business for myself as a corporate writer because I was really always happiest being at home and writing for myself.
And that’s what I did. In 1983, I left and I became a freelance corporate writer. And everybody said I was crazy. I remember I told my father in the back of a cab. He himself had always been a freelancer. I said, “I’m leaving my job at American Express.” And the first thing he said was, “Don’t tell your mother.” Nobody thought that this was going to work, but it did work. And I’ve been a freelancer ever since. I recently wrote a second book about being an Italian Jew and being an emigré and what that was all about.
And it’s called Mixed Messages, Reflections of an Italian Jewish Family and Exile, and that was published about two days before we all had to stay home because of the pandemic. But it was something I had to write, and I was glad I wrote it. And it’s out there. And I’ve recently retired from corporate work. And I continue to write on a freelance basis. I’m working on a little piece about Ruth Orkin, the photographer. There’s a wonderful exhibition of her work in New York. I’m following my passions and my feminist ones, and my interests as well.
JW: You talked a little about the group you joined of women talking about work. Was this an informal group?
EFD: It was. By the time I came back to New York, there were all sorts of feminist groups. But I remember I tried to lead a group in Rochester, and I felt like I was the grandmother and they were all kids, and I could help them, but they couldn’t really help me very much. When I came back to New York, of course, I had two children that I had to take care of and this job. I didn’t really have much time, but somebody introduced me to this group.
We were all feminists. But really, we were focused on issues of the workplace, and it was very important. It showed me how to market myself. It prepared me for how to leave. I remember I went to my boss at American Express and said something to the effect of, “Great news, I’m going to be a freelancer and you’re going to be my first client. I’d love to be able to work for you on a freelance basis.”
When I was working officially, I could only write for the top three officers. This way every other executive could use my services. It was great for them. And it was great for me. And I knew I could pay my rent for that first year. Things like that. I don’t think I would have succeeded unless I understood how to do it. And nobody at home could help. My father was proud of me, but he really was an Italian male, and it never occurred to him to talk to me about the workplace or how to operate as a professional. And I don’t think he was so great at it. I wasn’t prepared for many things, and this helped me a great deal. I never officially joined another group when I was here, but that was just something that happened through friends. It was great.
JW: You said your book is about being in exile. Do you still think of yourself as in exile?
EFD: No, I don’t think of myself as in exile, but I think of my parents and their generation as having been in exile. I think of myself as very much an American. Although with the arrival of Trump, I began to consider trying to get my Italian citizenship back. It’s actually very interesting because the Italians, it turns out, really don’t want people to come back. And even if I’d been able to get a passport, it would be five or ten years before I would officially be able to go back.
But I talked about this to my oldest son, and he made a decision. My mother was a German Jew. She had fled Munich and gone to Naples, where she met my father and they married in 1937. It would have been possible to get a German passport. I’ve never been to Germany. My mother brought me up to hate everything German. She never spoke a word of German. And the idea of getting a German passport was something that I couldn’t really fathom. But my son has gotten a German passport.
I gave him all of the documents, the marriage documents with the Swastika on it and all sorts of things. If something terrible happens, I’ll go back to Germany on his passport. I think the experience of World War II certainly taught me that if you have to leave the country, it’s a good thing to do.
JW: I want to go back to that march in 1970. What do you remember about it?
EFD: Well, it was so thrilling. I just was thrilled by it. People of all ages, of all colors. I just felt this wave of support and of opportunity before me. I remember thinking that it was a great time to be a woman. I was very fortunate. I was very lucky that that happened, because it opened up so many things for me. But also, the society was changing. And that was the thing that I felt the most. That the society was beginning to change. And that really was true.
I think I was the first female speechwriter for a CEO on Wall Street. Nobody would have hired me five years before, for that position. It just wasn’t possible. And when I was getting my divorce in Rochester, my book had already come out. I remember the lawyer said to me, “You should just take your children and run. You have written a feminist book.” And I always said that Rochester was seven years behind the rest of the country in everything. He said, “You’re like a marked woman. No judge will give you the children.”
And also, it was a time in New York when cities were going up in flames. It wasn’t a great time to bring people back to New York. But I had lived in New York, and I was never afraid to be there or to bring my children. Had all of that not happened, I would not have been able to write what I wrote. I went back to Rochester and wrote about radical mastectomies, for example, for a local paper and how we were being given less options than women in Canada.
It just transformed me in every possible way and opened me up to so many things. And that was the beginning. It was just very exciting.
JW: And to finish up, I assume it had a major effect on the trajectory of your life?
EFD: Yes, it completely transformed my life. I have two sons, and I think it changed their lives. They are very much feminist husbands and fathers. They cook. Their marriages are more 50/50, which it was not when I was married, which drove me crazy. They’re married to strong women. My son is a very successful professor at UCLA, and his wife was named Dean of the UCLA Law School, and he couldn’t be more proud of her. He doesn’t feel threatened by a strong woman, and I’m very proud of them for that reason.
And I didn’t indoctrinate them, but I think they saw and understood what I was going through and it made them into feminists. They saw that I could be a good mother and a good wife and could have a job and could have a career. And that was not emasculating in any way. I think it was very profound for them. As we’ve seen, it’s a long struggle, and it’s not over. It really is not over at all. The other thing to say is that I realized at a certain point that my mother didn’t have the advantages that I had. And the women of my parent’s generation often were really stymied, frustrated, unhappy in their marriages, and it was too late for them to create careers or even think about it.
And I think the women’s movement made me aware of that as well. And I feel very fortunate that I came to maturity when I did, and that the women’s movement was there and is still there.