Priscilla Leith

“The women’s movement persuaded me to get into women’s economic issues.”

Interviewed by Rosemary Trowbridge, VFA VP of Events, May 2021

RT:  Tell us your full name.

PL:  My name is Priscilla Marie Tremper Leith.

RT:  What was your life like before you got involved in the women’s movement, including your ethnic background?

PL:  My ethnic background is one quarter Irish and three quarters German. I joined NOW in 1971, just before moving to Massachusetts. I went to a meeting at Wisconsin State University in Oshkosh, where my husband was teaching, because some people wanted to form a NOW chapter and one needed 10 members to form a Chapter, 10 dues paying members. I went to the meeting and I paid my dues and I didn’t take on a position because we were about to move. I did nominate some people for office, and I wanted to get the man who was there claiming that he was great on women’s rights because of his mother, I nominated him for secretary, and he won. He was pretty gracious about it; he was a professor of political science at the university there. Then we moved to Newton where I really got into NOW.

RT:  What year was that again?

PL:  1971 in May in Wisconsin. And then we moved here in July.

RT:  Tell us when and where you got involved in the women’s movement in Massachusetts.

PL:  I called Boston NOW – there was no Massachusetts chapter at that time. I went to a meeting, but I didn’t want to go into Boston. Most of the people there were younger than I was, unmarried. The activists and leaders were ten years younger and didn’t have children, most of them. I found the Lexington Chapter and I joined that; it was very congenial for me.

I ended up being President at one time and I got into the effort to form a state chapter, writing bylaws. We had many meetings. I don’t know how many meetings I went to. We had a conference or convention and passed the bylaws. Then we elected officers. I was the treasurer. This was the beginning of a chain of officers who were first the treasurer and then the state coordinator. It was good background to have people responsible for the money before they became in charge.

RT:  Can you tell us more about your activity in Mass NOW and what issues were of your greatest concern that got you involved in the Newton chapter?

PL:  We had a Newton Chapter, which I helped to found, but I was never an officer. We worked mostly on school issues, because that’s what the women there were into. The school committee was a very important office. The lobbying to the school committee and the superintendent was intense sometimes, when there was a pressing issue. But I was never into it, I was more into the government end in Newton.

We went to visit the Superintendent of Schools, but we were given the Assistant Superintendent, Henry Adkins – his son later became a Member of Congress. He was appalled at how the girls were being treated: they didn’t have adequate equipment, they didn’t have time for the sports on the fields, and they didn’t get equal attention. The coaches were not paid as well as the male coaches. There were a lot of things. We just sat there and told him this, and his mouth fell open. He did respond, and it was nice to have somebody respond as well as he did.

RT:  You were responding to the passage of Chapter 622 which prohibits sex discrimination, curriculum, and activities in Massachusetts?

PL:  I think so, yes. And there was also the matter of who got called on in class, who put their hands up, and whom the teachers called on. It was mostly the boys. The school officials did listen to us, they paid attention and that was amazing. It was different from legislators at the state level.

RT:  Nice change. What would you say were your major accomplishments, both personally, and that you were involved in?

PL:  The Equal Rights Amendment campaign. I was always active at the federal level. I started working on that in the fall of 1971. Our congressman at that time was Father Drinan. Right behind us in West Newton lived a young woman who had just graduated from Newton High School and she had a job as the driver for Father Drinan, who did not drive a car. She worked with me on the ERA effort and I had a close contact with him that way. He was very helpful, he always was. He went to the marches and he carried a banner totally irrelevant to his profession, and he was into it.

Then, the other issue I ended up working on was civil rights and discrimination against black people. When I helped to lead a campaign to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance in housing and education in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, my father and mother were visiting me, and my father was not at all in tune with anything liberal. He was a right-wing Republican, a Nixon backer. So, I was in the uncomfortable position of having invited a man who was head of the Madison, Wisconsin Commission Against Discrimination to come up and go with us to the meeting. He was allowed to speak to the council in Oshkosh about it and tell what his experience had been implementing this ordinance.

I had him for dinner first, and my parents were there, and it was very difficult. The other thing that I got into with the family was after I was called to go down to New Bedford when a woman had been raped on the pool table in a bar. Cheryl Araujo was 21 years old with two kids and she had been out looking for cigarettes. She couldn’t find a store open where she usually went. So, she went into this bar and bought a pack of cigarettes and then was on her way out to go home to her kids.

There were some men in there who looked at her and started trying to get into a conversation and she ended up getting thrown on the pool table and raped by four men. The four men were caught and arraigned and on the day that they were to be arraigned at the courthouse down in either New Bedford or Fall River, I was called and asked to come down. A NOW chapter down there wanted somebody from the state organization to come and they couldn’t get anybody else. 

I drove down there by myself, I got near the courthouse and there was no parking. They had capped all of the parking meters within several blocks of the courthouse, I think four blocks. So, I parked where I could, and I walked.

There was nobody on the streets until I got near the courthouse, and then there was a huge crowd of people outside. I tried to make my way through, and I found that there were TV cameras. They (reporters) were yelling, “There she is!” and pointed at me. They put a microphone in my face, and they wanted me to say something. All I did say was that I was the State Coordinator or President or whatever we called it.

I tried to get into the courthouse, but I couldn’t make it. I assume the people who wanted me to come knew that I had come, because there was a lot of noise about it and the media was covering it. I just ended up walking back to my car and driving home. That was that. That night on ABC, the local Boston station had film of me. It got put on national ABC News and my mother-in-law saw it down in Pennsylvania. The next time that we were visiting down there, she accosted me and asked if it was me on camera. I said yes, and she said, “Did you ever have an abortion?” I said, no. Then she asked me some more questions and I just ducked it. She was very hostile. She could be that way.

I had a nicer time when I went over to Vassar College to either visit or pick up my daughters or take them home. I would stay at the Alumnae House for a couple of days. I brought my books as I was in school at that point, going to Babson for an MBA. I would study and then I would go down in the library and chat with people. I found out some of the things that were going on on the campus, so I went to some meetings of the feminist groups and listened to what they were doing. I talked to the girls. They were a little bit different from what we were about. They knew the issues, but they were on their own jag about things pertaining to them, particularly on the campus.

RT:  How did your involvement in the movement affect your later life personally and professionally?

PL:  It was what persuaded me to get into women’s economic issues. I wasn’t that interested in abortion rights, although I lobbied for it, but I was interested in money. I learned pretty quickly that economic issues were very important for mostly all women. Whether they were married or not married, women were discriminated against in pay all the way up from age 18 to the end of their lives. I wanted to work in that area, and I went to business school and I got a good handle on finance, which I am still using.

The discrimination against women in insurance was an issue that went on here in Massachusetts for years. It was maybe five years ago to eight years ago that it finally passed to implement the State ERA in Massachusetts. It took a long time and a lot of lobbying. It was the ACLU that finally got it through.

RT:  And we passed the State ERA in nineteen seventy-six?

PL:  Yes. The insurance industry was and still is the major opponent of the Equal Rights Amendment. It’s sad that the people up at the top levels with the groups that are supporting the ERA don’t seem to get it. There’s nobody from our era that I know of who’s on their boards, who is helping them decide – the decision makers. They’re living in a fantasy world, but that’s my own opinion.

RT:  What have you been doing since the end of the second wave? Have you been active in other areas since the second wave? Since the ’80s?

PL:  Yes. I got into the Democratic Party in Newton. I was the ward chairman and from there went on to the executive board. When we rented space for a headquarters for the Clinton-Gore campaign, I was the secretary, which I don’t like doing. (None of us liked that job.) It was a place for me to be on the executive committee and have some power, so I took it. The person who was the chair of the city committee in Newton did not drive. She knew when we took the headquarters that she would have difficulty getting over to the other side of town. It was on the south side and she lived on the north side and she had to take the bus.

That meant she needed somebody else to be over there and on top of things day to day, and since I didn’t have a job at that point and had finished school, I volunteered to do it. I ended up working there every day during the campaign. It was fascinating. I just loved it. I was in charge of half of the building, which was our campaign and the other one was State Senator Lois Pines’ campaign, which was not an easy campaign that year. I got into the middle of some internal strife, but I managed to duck, not take sides. It was not easy.

RT:  I remember your involvement in the Democratic Party, in the state conventions, especially the convention where we passed Medicaid funding for abortion in Massachusetts. I know you were very involved in that, too.

PL:  Is that the one where some of the leadership of NOW had sent a letter to Governor Michael Dukakis and he didn’t answer it?

RT:  I have no idea.

PL:  Betsy Dunn and Kay Doherty were the main culprits. They got an answer back, but they never told me, and they swiped the letter, which was addressed to me. They took it to a copy shop and had it photocopied thousands of times and took all these copies to the Democratic State Convention and passed them out to Delegates who were going to vote on the pro-choice resolution, and that’s when I saw it.

RT:  What did it say?

PL:  It said that he was in support of the proposal that we favored. There was a vote on the floor, as we had proposed adding it to the platform, so that letter went out to support our side and we won. But I was just quite upset, I really was. That was nasty.

RT:  Because it was to you. Are you currently involved as an activist?

PL:  I wasn’t when I submitted my original draft of this, but I have since gotten into something here that’s very interesting at North Hill. I don’t know too much about the Town of Needham politics, except that I go to the Democratic Party meetings occasionally, and I went to the caucus supporting Ed Markey vs. Joe Kennedy. The Town elections are held in the spring. The Town of Newton has staggered seats on what’s called the Select Board. I called the members Select Persons. I don’t know what their proper title is.

There was one vacancy in April for the election from a man who didn’t run again, and there was one man running for another term. He was an incumbent and he was probably in his late 60s or 70s. The age bracket for the Select People was up in the 60s, the average age. The one who ran for re-election lost. He was on the Board for many, many years and was well-liked. He was a trustee here at North Hill, where I live. The open seat was taken by a woman who is a professor at Babson College, an Indian American. And then the second one was taken by a black man who also lives in Needham. (You have to live here and be a registered voter to run.)

That was a radical change to have two minority members on the Select Board all of a sudden – they hadn’t had any before. I think there’s one woman, and this is only the second woman. The man who won is a YMCA membership director at the Boston YMCA. He used to be the sports director in Needham, so he was quite well known, and the woman has lived here all her life, I think. She went to Needham High School and has many, many credentials in the business teaching world. So the results were a surprise. There’s a diversity group here at North Hill, and I am chair of the Civic Affairs Committee which is supposed to inform residents about issues and candidates in the local and state and national elections and government.

I picked up on the election results, called the diversity group chair people – there are two of them who live near me, and they and I decided to invite these two new members of the Select Board to come and talk to North Hill. I had heard through another person that they were eager to do that – to get out and meet people all across town and with various organizations. We put in a request and we have been going through meetings and phone calls and emails for the last week, trying to figure out not just what we want them to say, but more basic things like what kind of technology are we going to use?

I am not that much into technology. I’ve only done email for years. The director of I.T. here met with us the other day. We were assured that we can do the live coverage in the auditorium with some people in the audience and have a camera there to record the whole thing live and show it on the internal television network. We can also have it on Zoom. That makes a lot of people able to see it and participate. The man who’s going to do the Zoom is in the middle of calling the shots. He’s not easy to work with, but we’re doing it. I’ve been on the phone quite a bit myself today and also on email. In between that, I have my normal life to run, I have bills to pay, I have laundry to do. And it’s been rather exhausting.

RT:  You’re still an activist!

PL:  I should say that after business school I was working for a friend who also had an MBA, from Bentley. She had her own business doing bookkeeping and accounting for nonprofit organizations, particularly battered women’s groups and homeless shelters. I didn’t get a lot of pay, but I had flexibility in my hours, I didn’t work full time and I learned a lot. That’s where I learned to do income taxes, and I had also had some experience doing it in other ways for estates (my parents) and some other friends.

The short story about that is I ended up deciding I didn’t like working for anybody else, and I didn’t look for another job when I got laid off. I just formed my own business and did tax preparation. It was a small business. I didn’t have any employees. I did it myself, mostly from January through April. I met interesting people. I always looked forward to having them come and bring me their taxes and chatting with them.

RT:  The women’s movement took you from being a political activist to being interested in money and women and money, which is a huge issue. 

PL:  I had some interesting conversations on and off with Evelyn Murphy, who was the Lieutenant Governor at one point. She was very interested in this, too, and she did a lot of things as Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, or even afterwards working with people to get more economic justice for women in Massachusetts.

RT:  Wonderful. Well, thank you very much Priscilla, it was wonderful to hear your story, because I only know you from NOW meetings and conferences and marches and campaigns. So, thank you very much for your time.

PL:  You’re welcome. Glad to do it.