Roslyn Feldberg

“I always think it’s helpful to know your own history.”

Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 2021

RF:  My full name is Roslyn, and my middle name is Lee, which I don’t use much, but I use my initial sometimes, and my last name is Feldberg. And I was born on April 21st in 1945 at the no longer standing Garfield Hospital in Washington, DC.

JW:  Okay, well, and you are in Brookline, Massachusetts, right now.

RF:  I am now in Brookline, Massachusetts.

JW:  Okay, great. Well, briefly, if you could, tell me a little about your childhood, your life before you got involved in the women’s movement.

RF:  I have one older sister, and we’re very close. She taught me a lot and bossed me around a lot when we were kids, but also protected me. We lived in a neighborhood that was almost entirely Catholic in a big apartment building, and it was mainly boys, and they would sometimes be very discriminatory towards us and call us dirty Jews. And sometimes they wouldn’t let us play, especially me. I was kind of a tomboy, and I liked to play baseball, and they wouldn’t let me, if they felt like it.

I had a pretty good childhood. We had lots of nice neighbors in our apartment building, and my parents were very encouraging of everything we wanted to do. I took elocution lessons and piano lessons and ballet lessons. Everything was for the kids. I think my mother didn’t get a new winter coat from the time my older sister was born until I was about 15. But we had everything we needed.

And when I was ten and a half, I had a bad fall in the school gym that was just my own fault. I fractured a couple of vertebrae in my upper back. I was in the hospital for three weeks and in a body cast for about two or three months. And they wouldn’t let me go to school because they said it wasn’t safe, that I wouldn’t be able to exit the school if there was an emergency. They wanted to send me to a special school for crippled children, and I was afraid that if I went to that school, I would be crippled forever. I didn’t want to go.

My parents told me I didn’t have to go, and they arranged for me to have a home tutor from the Department of Education from the city of Chicago where I grew up. And by the time I got out of my body cast, my parents had moved to a bigger apartment, still in the city of Chicago. I was a real city brat. I went to a public high school called Sullivan in the city of Chicago, which had a population in the high school that was probably about 80% or 85% Jewish, and almost everybody went to college.

I was the editor of the high school yearbook my senior year, and I can’t remember what I did my junior year, but something on the yearbook and I was the valedictorian of my class, and I went to Brandeis for my first two years of undergraduate school. And then I transferred to the University of Illinois because I had a very difficult roommate at Brandeis, and I couldn’t get moved to a different room for those first two years. They said nobody else wanted to live with her. She wasn’t a bad person, but she had a lot of mental health issues, and sadly, she committed suicide about 15 or 20 years later.

But I left Brandeis then and went to the University of Illinois, at Champaign-Urbana. And part of the reason I went there was that my boyfriend, who I met right before my senior year of high school, was already at the University of Illinois at that time. He was down there and so we spent my junior year and his senior year down there together. And then he went to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. And I graduated early, in the middle of January of 1966 and moved up to Ann Arbor and had gotten myself submitted to graduate school there as well, and had a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship for my first year.

We got married that summer, and then I started graduate school. And then in graduate school, I had a lot of frustration. I was in sociology. It was an all-male faculty when I began, and they didn’t particularly appreciate their women students and I had a couple of very negative experiences, including one where I had applied for a Fellowship for my last two years of graduate school, which was a new fellowship called the Rackham Prize. Each Department was allowed to nominate in Liberal arts. And I don’t know if it was the whole University or just Liberal arts, was allowed to nominate one or two graduate students.

They were trying to get graduate students to get through the PhD more quickly. People were taking six, seven, eight years, and their aim was to have people finish in four to five. And my department nominated me. But then it turned out, I didn’t know this, but I learned about it from the Department administrator, who was a woman. They added at the end of their nomination for me, that they thought I could finish in the four to five years, if I didn’t get married. And the administrator told them, Roz was married before she started graduate school. They insisted that she change it to if I didn’t have a child.

And then when I won the prize, which was a feather in their cap as well as in mine, because it provided me with free tuition and a stipend for the last two years of graduate school, the associate chair of the Department, a very difficult man named Leon Mayhew, called me into his office and told me that they were so pleased and proud that I had won. And then he said, but we do have one question that I need to ask you. I said, okay, what’s the question? And he said, we wanted to know what kind of birth control you were using.

I was outraged. And I had an umbrella with me because it was a rainy day. And I slammed my umbrella down on his desk, and I said, that makes me mad. And I walked out. That was the summer of ’68. I had left the University of Michigan. I had a wonderful thesis advisor, Professor Ness, who was always respectful and helpful and supportive, but away a lot of times because his research areas were in South and Southeast Asia. And during my last year he was away.

And he arranged for me to have a thesis defense in September of 1970, just before I was leaving to go to Scotland, to the University of Aberdeen. When the University of Michigan was investigated for discrimination against women, the story of what happened to me was told to the committee. I was in Scotland at the time, but was told by one of my friends. And I’ve been told it was in the Federal Register as part of the record of that investigation.

JW:  Did you lose your scholarship?

RF:  No. And then during my last two years, I was supposed to also be a teaching fellow, a research fellow for the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies that Professor Ness directed. And he said to me, I don’t want you to do any work for me. I just want you to get your thesis done. He said, that’s the most important thing for you. He was overseas my last year, and he arranged for me to have his office and to have an electric typewriter, so that I could type my draft onto the typewriter and then send them to him, because there was no computer at that point in terms of email and stuff.

So, I did that. And I wrote to him at some point and told him. He asked me if I had applied for a teaching position in the Sociology Department at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. And I said no because I wasn’t sure I’d be finished with my thesis, and I didn’t want to delay it, if I was still working on it. And he said to me, no, you’re going to be finished. He said, you need to write and apply for a visiting lectureship. He said, because I’ve already written them a letter of recommendation. He pushed me to do it and I did it. And I got the visiting lectureship. So that was my first teaching position. 

JW:  And your spouse was with you?

RF:  My spouse had finished his PhD in April of 1970. He had started graduate school a year ahead of me, and he was in biochemistry. And he was also very supportive of me. And as soon as he finished his thesis, he took over all the household chores that I had been doing. He started doing the grocery shopping and the laundry and the cooking. And the thesis advisor, who had helped me all along, would clear his desk off every night while I was working on my dissertation and bring up a typewriter from the secretaries in biochemistry so that I could come to the lab with my husband and work.

JW:  What got you into the women’s movement?

RF:  Well, while we were in graduate school in Ann Arbor, we joined a group called New University Conference (NUC), which was a group of graduate students and young faculty who were opposed to the war in Vietnam, fighting for civil rights. And there was a big issue around the admission of black students at the University of Michigan. And all kinds of things like that that I got involved in. And in NUC, we started, I don’t remember exactly what happened, but we started a women’s caucus, and we started talking about issues.

And it turned out I had the only husband who was already, while he was still working on his thesis, doing things like washing dishes every night after dinner and cleaning the bathroom and stuff like that. And I just assumed that he would do that because he did it at home for his parents. Even when we were still dating, when he would come to my house, he would help clean up after dinner.

JW:  That was highly unusual in those years.

RF:  Apparently it was. I just took it for granted because my father always did that. My mom started working when I was six years old. She was a private secretary, and she started working part time. Nobody else’s mother was working outside the home at that point, but I didn’t realize that. So my dad always helped. He always did the clean up after dinner. I never saw my mother cleaning up after dinner, and my dad took care of us all day Saturday. That was his day with the girls. And he took us places and did things with us. And I just assumed that men participated in household chores and in child care.

JW: Issues came up in this organization or this group you started. That was one of them. But you were the star, apparently, with this unusual situation, you didn’t even know about. What other issues were important to you?

RF:  Well, birth control, because I didn’t want to have a child while I was still in graduate school, and the pill had been made available. And I went to the Planned Parenthood in Ann Arbor and got on the pill shortly before we got married in the summer of 1966, which was right after my 21st birthday.

You had to be 21 to get it at that point. And I was 21 at the end of April, and I got it then. And also, the other thing that bothered me was that none of the women students at that point had been given opportunities to work in certain special projects at the Social Research Institute at the University of Michigan. All the guys had paid appointments, all the graduate student guys. But none of the women graduate students did. And I thought that was very unfair. I didn’t need it because I had all these fellowships. But even if I wanted it just for training and interest, it was somehow communicated that it wasn’t available.

JW:  Did this group get active in trying to make change? The group you were in?

RF:  It wasn’t focused on Departments. It was focused on personal life. So, yes, people got very active, but in their own lives. But we also did. It wasn’t that group particularly. But we did push for women faculty to be hired in the Sociology Department at Michigan. And we did get one or two women hired. I don’t think either of them ever got tenure. And then in my last year of graduate school, a new star came into the Department named Charles Tilly.

And he was a very egalitarian male who had a wife who became famous in women’s history, Louise Tilly. And Chuck Tilly was always very interested in and supportive of me as a finishing graduate student. He would stop by all the time and ask me how my thesis was going, and nobody else in the Department did that, except one young faculty member who was very egalitarian as well, named Leslie Howard. Unfortunately, those people are all gone now.

JW:  And when you got to Scotland, did you notice any difference in how women were treated there?

RF:  No good differences. In Britain at that time, if a woman was employed, I don’t know what you’d call it, but her statement from the Department, they called it Inland Revenue, which was like the IRS. It was sent to her husband on her behalf. So even though I was officially working in Scotland, my husband was on an American fellowship from the U.S. He didn’t have any relationship officially to the British government in terms of taxes. But he received the tax statement on my behalf. That infuriated me.

Also, there was only one other woman full time faculty member in the Department in sociology at the University of Aberdeen at the time. And it was a very large Department. And then while I was there in the second year, I think, one woman graduate student was hired part time. And the women were all treated in a very patronizing kind of way by the administration. And I had one colleague who used to come into the faculty room that was like where our mail was put into little cubbies for us. And there were tea and coffee there.

And whenever I was in there and he would come in, I had very long hair, and he would come and stroke my hair. And I just hated that. And one day I turned to him and I said, “Don’t ever do that again. That’s demeaning and disrespectful.” And the other guys in the Department who never did anything like that, said to him, “Don’t get upset.” He started to get very upset about it. You know she’s a Yank, and they’re different. But that really, really frosted me that he did that.

JW:  I assume you came back to the States.

RF:  Well, first I started something new in Scotland. I had several male colleagues who were very egalitarian and very willing to work with me in any way. And with one of them, whose wife had just given birth to their first daughter, I started a class, a special seminar called Sex and Sex Status, which was the first basic sex studies course taught in a Scottish University. And we had no guide. There were no such courses that I knew of in the States, so I couldn’t write to friends and ask them to help me. This was in 1970 into ’71, and we started teaching this class, I think, in the Fall of ’71. But maybe it was in the spring semester of ’71. I can’t remember now. And we had a good subscription. We had about 15 students who took the seminar, and it was well received.

JW:  Two questions, who was “we” in that sentence? And the second, tell me about what the scope of the course covered.

RF:  Well, the “we” was my colleague Fred Turner, and Fred and I co-taught this seminar, and it talked about how sex became a status. It wasn’t just a biological situation. It became a social status and affected what you had access to. And we found whatever papers we could that were written on the topic. And we used a variety of readings. And I think we had people read some short stories. There wasn’t a lot of material at that point. We put together a course that was quite successful. Then we came back to the U.S. in late summer of 1972.

JW:  And were you involved in women’s issues at that point?

RF:  I was trying to remember how I got involved here because I didn’t know anyone in the Boston area. But I somehow got involved first with a group of women who were doing as a side research project, a study about what happened to divorced women. And that group was somehow related to SWS, which was Sociologists for Women in Society. And I joined that group as soon as I got back here.

And then I got involved in another group that’s still ongoing called, I don’t know what it was called initially, but eventually it started off being called Marxist Feminist Group One. It was a group of women who identified themselves as Marxist Feminists. And I think we started off doing a lot of readings and then discussing them. But then we got into more discussing contemporary issues and what was going on in this society. And for many years we met, I think it was two or three times a year.

And the women in the group came from New England, mainly Boston, a couple people from Buffalo, New York, a bunch of people from the New York/New Jersey area. And we used to meet at various, like camp groups, like there was a AFSC camp in Connecticut that we used to meet at. And we would meet at small venues in western Massachusetts. And sometimes we would meet at places that were associated with universities. And now in the more recent years, we just meet once a year in New York City because it’s gotten harder for some of the older members to travel around. And this last year with the pandemic, we actually met twice because people could meet on Zoom.

JW:  And what does the group do? What do you talk about and what do you do?

RF:  Well, we vote to talk about specific topics. And then people take responsibility for presenting material, either things that they’re working on themselves, or things that they think are particularly relevant. I should say that I also worked with a group called Women for Economic Justice, which I think was a Boston based group. I think the first executive director was a woman named Jean Entine back in the early 1970s. And I joined that group in the late ’70s or early ’80s, when I became aware of that group.

And it was a group that was advocating for better wages for women in domestic service and in low wage jobs with a particular emphasis on African-American women. And the person who was the executive director during my most active period when I became a member of the board was a woman named Barbara Neely, who also in her spare time – I don’t know how she managed – wrote murder mysteries and had four successful books in a series. And the heroine and private eye, the detective was a black domestic worker named Blanche White. They’re great fun to read. They’re four books. The first one is called Blanche on the Lamb.

JW:  I want to go back a minute to your group that met regularly because you’ve been meeting for many years. And I wonder if you recall some of the issues you discussed in the early days. And really, what I want to know is how that’s evolved, and what kind of issues you discuss now?

RF:  I would have to look up my old notes to tell you what we discussed in the early days.

JW:  What were the latest? What did you talk about at your latest meeting then?

RF:  Last October I can remember because I had to do a presentation. We talked about what was going on with women in Asia and in China in particular. We have a member who grew up in Turkey, and she talked about Turkey. And I should also say that ten years ago I went to Vietnam and lived there for six months with my husband. So that was why they asked me to look at some of the material on South and Southeast Asia and to compare China and Vietnam as much as I could. It wasn’t easy to get information.

When I came back to the U.S., I taught sociology at Boston University for a period of roughly eleven years. During that time, I took off one semester as a research leave. I didn’t like BU as a place. I liked a lot of the people there. But the President of the University was a terrible misogynist named John Silber, who was a philosopher. And one of his philosophical views was that women weren’t as smart as men and shouldn’t be doing intellectual and academic things. When women got grants, he saw it as a grant that should have gone to a promising young man. It was not a pleasant atmosphere.

I was very involved in the movement to organize the faculty. And we did successfully organize a faculty union, which he opposed and managed to get, I’m trying to think at what level, but some court, he got to agree with him that faculty were managers. And this was based on a decision about Yeshiva University. He managed to get the BU faculty ruled inappropriate on those grounds. I also helped the clerical workers to organize, and they had a union that was very successful, along with the librarians and the technicians.

I did a lot of that kind of work during my time at BU, as well as started the women’s studies program there. We had a group of women who were active in setting up a women’s studies program and helped to support the students who were setting up a women’s center. This was from 1972 to the end of August in 1983. And I left then. And my daughter was born in December of 1983.

JW:  I assume you continued feminist activities?

RF:  I did. I became first an educator and then a negotiator for the Massachusetts Nurses Association, which was the union for organized nurses, the largest union for organized nurses in Massachusetts. One of my former graduate students had done a dissertation about the emergence of the Nurses Association and the move to collective bargaining. And in the Association, which had started as a professional association in 1903, and she wanted to be an academic, even though I tried to discourage her from being an academic.

So when she was leaving the Association, it turned out it was at the time that I was finishing a Fellowship I had at Radcliffe after I left BU, and she said to me, “Oh, I should have let you know that I was leaving, and they were looking to hire somebody. And you would love working here.” And she said, “Well, you should apply anyway, but I think they may have already hired somebody.” So I applied and was interviewed. And it turned out the person they had offered the job to decided not to move from Connecticut. And I got the job.

JW:  What was the job?

RF:  Well, it started off being an editor and a lobbyist on issues around nursing and collective bargaining. But it quickly became clear that I was supposed to be doing staff education, and the staff simply didn’t have time where they could get together to do education programs because they were out in the field. After about six or eight months, they just said to me, “Okay, well, you’re going to do lobbying and maybe you could learn to do some more economic research for us. The hospitals are always telling us that they don’t have any money, and that’s why they can’t give nurses a raise. And we don’t think that’s true, but we’d like to be able to prove it.” And the woman, my former graduate student, had started doing some of that work. And I looked into it and I thought, yeah, I could do it, but I need a little more training.

I took a course in hospital finances at the Harvard School of Public Health. I audited the course so it wouldn’t cost the Nurses Association anything and got the professor who taught it, a terrific woman named Nancy Kane to let me sit in, and she said, I can let you sit in, unofficially. She said, “The only thing is you have to do all the assignments and turn everything in.” I said, “No problem, I won’t learn it if I don’t do that.”

I did. And I learned a lot. I did all the economic research for negotiations where the hospitals were complaining that they had no money and showed what lying creeps they were. And I got to know a lot of the attorneys on the opposing side, who as soon as they saw me come to the Association negotiations would say, “Oh no, there’s Dr. Feldberg again.” So that was fun. I enjoyed working with the committees, and then I became a negotiator.

JW:  It sounds like you have been an activist for women for your entire life. Is there anything you would like to add, a particular issue we didn’t cover yet?

RF:  I did a lot of work on comparable worth. When I had my fellowship at Radcliffe, I did a paper on comparable worth that ended up being a very good educational tool for a lot of people who were interested in the topic. And that’s been reprinted many, many times and included in many books of readings. I think that’s pretty widely available. I did it for a conference that was being organized by Frances Fox Piven. I don’t know if you know her work. But Francis was at BU while I was there, and we became friends, and we had actually a group of activist faculty, who would meet at a regular basis, Frances, and Sam Bass Warner, who was an urban historian, and Howard In and a few other people and a few younger faculty like me who weren’t so well known.

And Frances invited me to give my paper initially at a conference in Bellagio, Italy. So, I got to go to Bellagio. I was six or seven months pregnant at that time, and the people who ran the center there thought I was crazy to have come and I insisted on going on all the outings. They referred to me as “Senora Loco.”

JW:  Is there any other thing you’d like to add?

RF:  I have found it really encouraging to talk with women from many different cultures. I helped to organize a group of students at the University of Aberdeen to support each other – women students. I worked with some of the younger women faculty when I was in Vietnam. I gave talks about nursing to people from the Nurses Association there and at one of the universities in Saigon.

I’m hoping that women are not going to be set back by their forced exit from the labor market during the pandemic. I’ve read several things that said it could set women back as much as 20 years. I just feel terrible about that, both for the women who are going to experience that as young professionals, and also for the women who have worked so hard to create those opportunities for them. It’s frustrating.

JW:  There’s a lot of work ahead. Well, this has just been so fabulous Roz, I’ve loved hearing your story.