Jane Greengold

“Being a woman was not going to stop me from doing anything I wanted.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, December 2021

JW:  Please give us your full name, and when and where you were born.

JG:  Jane Greengold Stevens. I was born in New York City in 1945.

JW:  What was your childhood like? What led you to be the person you became?

JG:  I had a very protected childhood. I’m an only child of parents unusually old for that era: my mother was 40 and my father was 42 when I was born. They were both working full time and hired a nanny to be in charge of me when I was three months old, and the nanny lived and shared a room with me until I left for college, also an unusual aspect of my childhood. I went to public school in the Bronx through 6th grade and then went to a sort of crappy private school after that.

JW:  Was your mother a role model?

JG:  Yes, my mother was an amazing role model. She was way ahead of her time. When she went to law school, 1% of the class was women. When I went, 10% were women, and when my daughter went, 50% were women. I don’t know whether now the slope is going to go the other way. My mother was in politics –Democratic machine politics in the Bronx and became a judge when I was about five years old. It was very unusual for women in those days, and she was on the bench for quite a long time and then retired. She was very active both politically and professionally and always out in the world.

JW:  How do you think that shaped you?

JG:  I grew up expecting to be out in the world and to have a profession. It never occurred to me not to do that. In fact, it took me longer to decide to have children. I was hesitant about that. I’m not quite sure why, but I felt that I had so many other things I wanted to do that for a long time I wasn’t sure I wanted children. Then I began to think, this is such a basic experience in life, how can I turn away from it? I got married when I was 23 and finally decided to try to get pregnant when I was about 27. I was lucky and got pregnant quickly.  My first pregnancy resulted in twins, who were born when I was 28.

JW:  But you were in a profession by that time you had children?

JG:  Yes, I went to law school directly out of college and started practicing law when I was 23 or 24.

JW:  You had a second career as well, is that correct?

JG:  I had a second career as an artist.  I became serious about art while I was in law school and considered dropping out of law school and going to art school, but I didn’t quite have the nerve to do it. I’m glad I didn’t, although I wish I had gone to art school as well as law school because it’s a great way to make progress into success in the art world and there are skills, I am missing in my art practice that I could have learned in school. But basically, from the time I started practicing law, I was also making art.

JW:  How did having twins change your life?

JG:  Totally. Even having one child would probably have changed my life, but two was overwhelming. My husband and I shared childcare very equally, but of course neither of us had nearly as much time for our work as we had had before. But I did go on later to have two more children, one at a time, so it’s clear that I enjoyed it.

JW:  When did you hear about the women’s movement?

JG:  I honestly have no recollection about when I first heard about it; probably when I was in college.  I have always been 100% sympathetic with the women’s movement, but it did not change my own sense of possibility. I believe that my role model mother made me a little ahead of the curve on thinking about what women could do. It was important to me that the women’s movement was trying to improve opportunities for all women, but I didn’t feel like I needed it myself because my mother was the woman’s movement in my life.

JW:  Although the women’s movement was more than about getting women in the workplace. Which leads me to the book of essays you contributed to called The Balancing Act, which has to do with balancing your home life, your children, your job, in your case, two jobs. I noticed the first one was 1976 and then there were subsequent editions. You said you did not identify as a woman because of what you just explained with your mother and your background. And then in the later edition you modified that.

JG:  You are right of course that the women’s movement was about more than getting women in the workplace.  It was a lot about our sense of ourselves in the world. And my mother’s sense of her own independence and abilities gave me the confidence I needed.

Did I really say I did not identify as a woman? That sounds weird and ridiculous. I certainly was never denying my female identity. I assume that what I meant by that was that I didn’t identify as someone who had handicaps because of being a woman. It was badly put, but I think in the context, being a woman never made me feel like I couldn’t do anything I wanted to do, which is incredibly privileged. I think I was aware of that, and I certainly am aware now that I’m privileged in many ways, both in terms of having parents who could afford to send me to college and law school and growing up as a person who felt that being a woman was not going to stop me from doing anything I wanted. Other things might stop me, but being a woman wasn’t going to stop me.

JW:  How did you feel about the balance in your life that so many other women were struggling with?

JG:  I was lucky both that I had this wonderful role model as a mother and that I had a cooperative husband, and he was willing to share parenting and we really shared it. Maybe it was extreme, but we would get up in the morning during the week and divide the number of hours that had to be filled and took charge of the kids 50/50 pretty much every day.

JW:  That is unusual. How about your colleagues’ experiences? I assume they were not all like that.

JG:  They were not all like that, no. I was aware of my privilege. But it could be said that I have been judgmental of people who see discrimination against women too quickly. I have been lucky enough not to take things that are ambiguous as discrimination.

I can tell you a little anecdote from just a few years ago. I was at a meeting with a lot of lawyers on both sides of a case that I’d been working on for a long time, and there were some new people on the other side. I was representing the plaintiffs. All my legal work was civil, not criminal and I represented people who were being denied either government benefits or other privileges or whose rights were being violated in one way or another.

So we went to this meeting, and there must have been eight lawyers around the table, and I was the main spokesperson on my side, and the spokesperson on the other side was a man who was a total bully. He was just mean and nasty, and he was bullying me. And I was not easy to bully. When we got out of the room, one of my colleagues, a younger woman, said, “Wasn’t it terrible the way he treated you because you’re a woman?” And I said, “He wasn’t treating me like that because I was a woman, he was treating me like that because he was a fucking bully.” I believed that he would have been like that to anybody on the other side, that it had nothing to do with my being a woman, but the other women on my side experienced it as a man bullying a woman.

JW:  Which it was also.

JG:  It was also, but this is a continuation of what I was saying before. Because of my background, I didn’t have to struggle with the idea that I was having difficulties because I was a woman.

JW:  Were there other women that were forging ahead before you in your organization?

JG:  A very high percentage of legal services and public interest lawyers are women. That’s a whole other interesting question, whether we do it because it seems easier for us to do than to do other work, or whether we do it because it’s the better thing to do and women are good at doing the better thing.

JW:  And we’re used to making less pay.

JG:  Yes, women are used to making less money than the men in their lives. It wasn’t true in my marriage; I often made more money than my husband. But it is true that one of the things that makes it possible for many women to work in public service is that they have spouses who make more money.

JW:  How about women that followed you? Did you feel like you were a mentor, that you saw some struggles they had, anything like that?

JG:  Yes. I think any woman enjoying her work and thriving in it, while also having a family, helps others believe they can do that too. Certainly, there are women who are struggling economically a lot more than I was. Sometimes people have to stop doing public interest work because they don’t have the money. And I have known younger women and women my age, who felt much more that they were discriminated against because they were women. My response to that was to try to be a good role model and to show that women can be successful.

JW:  Tell me what the issues were that you were involved in.

JG:  Most of my career and political focus was on behalf of low-income people. My clients were not usually defined by gender or race, particularly. They needed help because low-income people had so few opportunities to get ahead in our culture in terms of education and jobs and housing.

I did a lot of work on behalf of people with disabilities who, both male and female, are suffering from all kinds of handicaps the rest of us don’t have to endure. Some of my favorite cases on behalf of people with disabilities were against the public transportation system and public housing system.

JW:  How about your artwork? Do you think being a woman somehow was infused or women’s sensibilities infused in your artwork?

JG:  I don’t think it had that effect. I haven’t been hugely successful as an artist, but I have only been devoting a relatively small proportion of my life to it. I have sometimes been frustrated at not having become more successful as an artist. But I certainly don’t think that’s because I’m a woman. I think it’s because I was doing all this other stuff. That’s another reason I regret not having gone to art school, because I think a lot of people in our culture nowadays make contacts in art school that help them move their careers along.

With none of those contacts, I’ve been lucky to have opportunities to do public work. Not big, but some permanent, public work. My law career has all been devoted to public interest law, and much of my art has been public art. That’s the thread that runs through both strands of my work.

JW:  What is public art? Would you explain that?

JG:  Basically, it’s art that’s made out in the world that people see without having to go to a museum and is done for the public and not for narrower audiences. I have been lucky enough to get commissions to do some permanent public pieces, for example, in the New York City subway system. That’s really public. There it is in a subway station, and it’s supposed to last. “Permanent” means it’s supposed to last for at least 50 years.

Now I’m doing something that’s also public that doesn’t require commissions, because I’m just going out into my local park and making ephemeral landscapes. I just find leaves, and flowers, and plants and shape them into designs. Sometimes they last two days, and sometimes they last 20 minutes. But the public enjoys it, and people stop and talk to me about it and then I invite them to work with me on the one I’m doing right that minute or to make a plan to work with me on another day.  It’s very community oriented and that’s what makes it fun. It’s fun to just do them, but it’s also fun to have people stop and say, what are you doing? Why are you doing this? And invite them to participate. That’s a different kind of public art.

JW:  I happen to know about the woman you created under the Brooklyn Bridge. Would you talk about that?

JG:  That was one of the most successful things I’ve done and that ended up with some pretty interesting community engagement. In 1983, Creative Time put out a request for proposals for a group show in the Brooklyn Anchorage of the Brooklyn Bridge for the 100th birthday of the Bridge.  They opened up the Brooklyn Anchorage and invited artists to propose work for that space. I proposed something quite different from everybody else:  I created a fictional character whose life was radically affected by the building of the bridge and the Anchorage. Her family was evicted, and she ended up becoming a quite eccentric old lady who moved into the Anchorage and lived there for a long time and every day for almost 100 years, put a little chalk mark on the wall. The physical manifestation of the work was the creation of the home she had allegedly lived in. It had her bed and her clothes and her food and drawings that she had supposedly done of the bridge.

In Creative Time’s show, there were twelve different artists, and each artist had a classic velvet rope at the edge of their work and a sign with the name of the piece and the artist’s name. The sign at my work said: The Anchorite, by Jane Greengold. However, when you looked past that velvet rope, in my work, there was a sign that told the story about Agatha Muldoon as if it were real. It told that when I entered the space to consider creating work for the show, I met this old lady. The whole thing was made to look as though she were a real character, although there was a sign that said The Anchorite, by Jane Greengold, so it was fiction, and not fraudulent.

The best story I have about that was during the time that show was up, Creative Time had a public forum to discuss the art. Spalding Gray was in the audience, and people were encouraged to ask questions of the artist. He stood up and said, “My major question is whether Jane Greengold is ashamed of herself for taking advantage of this old lady?” He had 100% bought into the fact that it was real. And he was a storyteller himself. That was an amazing moment. I got to stand up and say, “No, I’m not ashamed of myself. The woman didn’t exist, I made her up.” So, it was effective!

JW:  What effect have you seen the “women’s movement” have on the women that you’ve worked with: your daughters, maybe your daughters-in-law, in general?

JG:  Most of the women I worked with, in the last 20 or 30 years, were considerably younger than I was. It seemed to me that they went to law school and decided to be lawyers much more easily than women did when I was young. The whole feeling among women about their opportunities for careers, including careers that were once mostly male dominated, is certainly different than when I was young. I do give all the credit for that to the women’s movement.

I know that many women are still struggling to get their male partners to share equally in domestic work. But I believe the women’s movement has improved the chances that men are prepared to share domestic and familial responsibilities.

JW:  Do you have any last comments you’d like to make?

JG:  I’m aware of the somewhat unusual experience I’ve had in relation to these issues, and I’m grateful for my luck. I’m grateful that the women’s movement has made it easier for people who haven’t had that luck. I think there has been more progress for women in the workplace, than at home, because the professions have opened up to women faster than men have come forward to do half of the housework and half of the childcare. There’s a lot more work to be done on that.