THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Susan M. Reverby, PhD
“I don’t think there’s anything about my life that wasn’t shaped by the women’s movement.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, October 2021
SR: My full name is Susan Mokotoff Reverby and I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 24, 1946. I’m the daughter of a physician and a microbiologist. My father worked in hospitals in New York when I was a child, and then when I was seven, we moved to this little town in upstate New York literally called Middletown. It’s about 70 miles northwest of the city.
But it was really upstate when I was a kid. A lot of my friends never went to the city. It was mostly a white working-class town, very small number of people of color, I’d say, mostly like Italians and Irish working class and other ethnic groups and a handful of Jews. I grew up there. I’m the oldest of four children. I have a brother who is two years younger than me and then a brother and sister who are twins who are ten years younger than me.
So basically, even though I was born in the city and my parents are both from New York, we were really raised in this small town in upstate New York, and that’s what really shaped my life in lots of ways. My mother mostly always worked. She was a microbacteriologist, and she worked for a while in my dad’s office. My father was a solo practicing physician, and the office was in our house, actually.
But then she got a Master’s in teaching from Teachers College in New York, and she became a high school biology teacher. And then she moved on to the local community college. And she spent 30 or 40 years teaching MedTech microbiology in the community college. She started one of the first programs to train MedTech’s to do electron microscopy and wrote a textbook on how to teach electron microscope work. And then when she was in her 60s, she got bored. I always said, the best way to describe my mother’s marriage is what my aunt said, which is the working conditions were lousy, but the pay was good. I mean, my parents were really mismatched.
My mother spent 60 years with this man she was basically mismatched with. And we all would agree on that. But she managed to figure out how to survive her marriage. And she did a radio show. She became interested in local politics. She became the first Democrat elected to the City Council from our Ward. She became the City Council President and then was the mayor. When she was 72, she became the mayor and then was mayor for two terms. And then she ran for the New York State Legislature, but lost. And she kept saying if Mario Cuomo (then the Democratic governor) had only given me 10,000 more dollars. And I said, “Mom, you were a 74-year-old Jewish woman running against a Republican in upstate New York. I don’t think $10,000 would have done it.”
My dad died in 2002, and my mother always hated the house. It was an old Victorian in which all the public space went to my father’s office. My mother raised four kids above the store as it were. After my dad passed, she took back the public space and she gave herself a dining room for the first time. But she always hated the house. And her knees were starting to go. When she was 85, she called me one day she said, “I’m buying land. I’m going to build a house. Do you think this is nuts?” And I said, “No, I think waiting until you’re 90 might be nuts, but you’re 85. It’s your money. It’s not ours. Do whatever you want, Mom.”
She sold the house and built a ’50s ranch. She filled it with mid-century furniture. And she got her ’50s ranch. And she lived to 100. My mother met this lovely man in the gym. They got introduced at the YWCA gym by their trainer when my mother was 90 and Al was 85. And they became a couple. And they got married when she was 98, about to turn 99. And the headline in The New York Times said, “Bride is 98. Groom is 94. They met in the gym.” It was just great. I mean, at one point when we were having some family event and she now was sharing her room, she says to me, do you think the kids will be upset by this?
And I said, “Mom, most people are having a conversation with their mothers in their 90’s about their caregiver and what kind of Depends to buy. And you’re asking me about sex. Go for it, sweetheart.” She was just wonderful. I mean, in many ways, she was very traditional. She was born in 1918. If you would have a fight with my father, she at one point said, “Look, I can’t defend you. You’re going to have to do this. I can’t take him on.”
And I learned very early that my father had all this power because he had the money. He made the money in the family, but that he didn’t deserve it. You know what I mean? I understood that he had the power and the money, but that basically he wasn’t very bright. I mean, he was a good doctor, but he didn’t deserve our listening to him all the time. He and I just fought all the time, even when I was a kid, in part because I thought he had just very old-fashioned ideas.
I remember I went out with some guy and he told me I couldn’t drive with teenagers. I was like a sophomore in high school, and even though the kid drove, his mother had to pick us up. And I was completely mortified by this. I said to my father, “Look Dad, here’s the choice. I either lie to you and I meet him around the block and he drives us, or you give me permission. Your choice.” My mom was in some ways this model of all the unfortunately sneaky ways that women survive. She taught me a lot about those kinds of things, but she herself survived the marriage by doing other things.
But my father had a lot of power and a lot of control in ways that I thought were really just stupid. And it gave me permission to essentially think that. And I think my mother got her way of managing in part from her mother. Her mother had also been forced essentially into a marriage when she was younger and just wasn’t in a very happy marriage either. And what my grandmother, the immigrant, had done was when my mother was young, she pushed her through school so that she graduated. She could do these accelerated programs in New York.
My mother was 15 during the Depression, when she got out of high school. And my grandmother turned to my grandfather and said, “She’s too young to get working papers. She has to go to college.” My grandmother had schemed all those years to make that happen. My mother graduated from Brooklyn College in the Depression at age 19. And my mother was extremely close to my aunt. They called each other Sister. My cousin used to call my mother, Aunt Sister. And I used to tease that my mother and my aunt were the original lesbian couple.
My mother was really married to my aunt, not to my father in some ways. Her emotional support came from her sister. The words for feminism certainly weren’t there, but the words for activism, for changing things. This is the major thing I learned from my mother, that if you’re having a problem, probably somebody else is too, and there’s probably a collective solution to it. I think that’s a lot of what she taught us, at least the girls, that you had a responsibility to other people. And if you thought something was wrong, then you had a responsibility to act, and that you had responsibility to act with other people in concert.
For her generation, it was amazing. But I think it went back to my grandmother. I think it’s all the kind of hidden feminism that they didn’t have the language for. And they compromised a lot. When my mother won her first election, she thanked her team and her microwave, because she could leave dinner behind for my father when she went to meetings. She’s pretty old fashioned around sexual issues, etc. But she was really wonderful.
The one thing I really learned about it was I was damn sure I was going to have a real job. And I was never, ever going to rely on a man for money, because my father so manipulated everybody around the money. For me, it was a lesson about don’t count on them. You have to make your own living and you have to control your own funds. It was really important to me. I saw the cost of it. My father was really manipulative. He thought I wasn’t helping with the younger kids enough and so he refused to send me to camp for a whole summer.
I went to Cornell as an undergraduate and we’ll get into this in a second. I was in the Industrial Labor Relations school (part of the state system and much cheaper than the private part of Cornell), and I was really miserable and I wanted to change. And my father said, “Well, I don’t want to spend the money to pay back the tuition to Cornell” – which probably was about $1,000 at that point. “You have to stay.” I went to Cornell and I have this undergraduate BS degree in industrial and labor relations because my family thought you should know what you want to be right away. My parents always knew they were science people. And I had a high breakage fee in my high school chemistry class and a bitchy chemistry teacher in high school who didn’t like me.
I thought I couldn’t do science, which is hilarious since I became a historian of medicine and science. And I love the history, but I thought I had to have a job when I finished. My parents gave me this pamphlet called Should Your Son or Daughter Be A Personnel Administrator? And it was written by a guy named Cyrus Ching, who had been the anti-union guy at Sears and Roebuck. It’s really hysterical. I only applied to industrial relations schools. Many parents didn’t understand what the Liberal Arts education meant, and I was the oldest kid.
I got into Cornell and it was 4 hours from my house, and it was because we had scholarships. It was $200 a year, and my parents had three other kids to educate. I went to Cornell and I got there and after about two weeks, I realized that if you were a personnel administrator and you had to work for management, that this was probably not a good idea for me. And I was really miserable. There were 80 guys and maybe 15 women in our class, and in 1963 the sexism was pretty bad.
I remember the professor who taught Personnel Administration and Intro to Industrial Labor Relations was talking about a grievance procedure, and he said, “Well, the women thought other workers or somebody in management were good fellows” – and he used the term fellows all the time, like the way we use the word guy now. I raised my hand in class. And I said, excuse me, Professor, was it a fellow-fellow or a girl-fellow, because it would make a difference in terms of understanding what happened here?
And I got called “fellow” for the rest of my time in the ILR school. Everybody thought this was kind of hilarious, and I really was miserable. And the only reason I survived it were two things. One is that my professor, my advisor, by luck of the alphabet and nothing else, was this wonderful German Jewish refugee who had escaped on the Kindertransport from Germany during the war. And he was married to a woman who was also a microbiologist like my mother. And he thought women were smart and should be supported intellectually. And he thought I was smart. And he really made all the difference in the world to me.
This is a hilarious story. Hannah Arendt was coming my junior year to lecture and to do a course. And I wanted to take her course, but it interfered with a required course on Social Security Administration. I wrote this petition to the student dean office saying why anybody interested in industrial society should learn from Hannah Arendt and why they should let me out of this course and they wouldn’t let me do it. They told me that I had to take Social Security Administration. Basically, I just said, fuck you. And I applied to the London School of Economics at the last minute. And I went away my junior year.
By then, the anti-war movement was starting to heat up, particularly at Cornell before I left for London. I started to go to teach-ins the end of my sophomore year, so that would have been the spring of ’65. And the guy that I was dating and eventually married for a nanosecond, Mr. Reverby, his father was a Union organizer in New York, and they were a Communist Party family, and I just loved talking to them. They were great. And they were really supportive about my growing politics in a way that my parents were not.
And then I went to London for the year, and I did anti-war work. I got involved in doing political work there. I spent a lot of time with Labor Union people. By the time I came back for my senior year, I was pretty politicized. Then our Cornell SDS chapter ended up organizing the first major draft card burning on the East Coast in the spring of ’67. I was deeply involved in all of that. And ten of us got “arrested” by the college for organizing draft card burning, and they almost threw us out. And then they finally just reneged on it.
Larry Reverby and I got married about a week after I graduated from college, and we went off to England because I wanted to leave the country. And then we decided we really wanted to come back. So, we moved to New York in the fall of ’67. And I got a job purely by fluke essentially as a secretary for an organization called the Two Bridges Parent Development Program. It was a funded poverty program. It was on the Lower East Side of New York. And we were one of the three decentralized school districts during the decentralization struggle over the New York City public schools in the late ’60s.
There was IS 201 in Harlem and then Ocean Hill Brownsville in Brooklyn. And those were mostly black and Puerto Rican communities. Ours was more on the edge of Chinatown and just more mixed. I worked primarily with black, Puerto Rican and Chinese American women doing things around education in the schools. And then there was this huge strike in the fall of ’68 by the union. And it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever crossed a picket line. We crossed the picket line to keep the schools open and to support our kids. And I learned an enormous amount.
And in the summer of ’66, Larry Reverby was basically flunking out of Northwestern. He’d gone there to get a master’s degree, and I went to live with him that summer. We worked for Dr. King and SCLC because they had come north to work on open housing. I did a lot of that. I was doing civil rights work in Chicago that summer before I came back to Cornell for my last year. By 1969, the beginnings of black power were really being articulated.
I really thought, I’m a white woman in a people of color community. I really need to go do something else. I couldn’t figure out what I was going to be when I grew up, so I wrote the application for a social work degree from Columbia, and an elementary school teacher from Bank Street. And I got past the name, address and phone number. And then it said, why do you want to be an elementary school teacher? And it said, why do you want to be a social worker? And I couldn’t answer the questions, so I said to myself, I don’t think I’m going to do this. It’s a good lesson. If you can’t fill out the “why do you want to do this?” portion, it’s probably not the graduate school for you.
By then because of black power stuff, I decided I really wanted to work on white racism. I became involved with a group called People Against Racism, and I decided I wanted to go back into history, which I loved. I applied and got into the American Studies Program; it was called American Civilization at that point, at NYU in the fall of ’69. But that spring, things were starting to happen around the women’s movement in New York already.
I was friends with a woman named Rosalyn Baxandall, who we lost way too young. And Ros worked at MFY, Mobilization For Youth, on the lower east side. And she gave me the Florida Paper, or the Southern Paper. And it was just one of the early things on the women’s movement. And I started to read some of this. And then a bunch of my friends, while I was still working at Two Bridges, formed a women’s group that somebody helped organize. I can’t remember – one of the big muckety-mucks in the women’s movement in New York, it might have been Ros, or somebody else. And so, we formed this women’s group.
And at the beginning, all I kept thinking about was, well, this is a good way to get women into the left. I mean, I honestly didn’t think it had anything to do with my life very much. I just thought of it as an organizing tool. And then I remember one day I was coming home from the grocery store. And I was pulling the cart. And I saw this image of myself yanking this heavy grocery cart. And then I thought my then husband, Mr. Reverby, was six foot four and weighed 200 pounds. And I kept thinking, why am I lugging this cart? That was my click. It was me lugging a grocery cart and then schlepping it up the stairs. In my apartment, I thought, this isn’t right.
As I say to my students, I don’t think anybody’s marriage survived 1970 and the women’s movement in New York. Although he was a lovely man and we’re still friends, I got married because I didn’t want to go back to Middletown, basically. And I couldn’t figure out what else to do and because I liked his family, and I wanted a different family to be part of. And then the FBI called my parents because we had organized the draft card burning. And when my mother answered the phone, my mother said, “Oh, I think she’s still traveling in Europe. I don’t know where she is.”
Of course, we were in New York by then. And then they called again, and my father gave them my phone number. And I was working in resistance at that point. We had people who had left the army, deserters, staying in our house as they were on their way up to Canada. I said to my father, “Please do not talk to the FBI next time they call you. It could be a lot more serious than what we were doing. Please stop.”
JW: Tell me more about the women’s group.
SR: I was in a small group and we started talking, and I thought some of it was interesting. The group went on into ’69, ’70. Larry and I broke up in January of 1970, and I found the women’s group sort of more problematic because first of all, I didn’t have a man to complain about anymore since I was divorced. And I just felt more out of it. And it also was that divide between people who wanted to keep the group going forever and ever to talk about things. I wanted to change the world. And I wanted more political stuff. Because I came out of the left at this point clearly.
After another year, our group started to fall apart. By then I had gone back to graduate school. I decided I was going to write my master’s thesis on women’s labor history. But then Larry and I broke up. And then in 1970, the Student Strike happened after students were killed in Orangeburg and Kent State, and none of us went to class at all. We were all doing other political things. I not only thought of myself as a feminist but thought of myself as a political person. At the end of that summer, I dropped out of graduate school. I couldn’t figure out why I was doing it anymore.
I got a job, because the New York law had changed on abortion. And everybody I knew in the women’s moment was getting jobs in abortion clinics and then I got a job in one of the abortion clinics. Again, I was like the secretary. People would call me, and I would tell them how to come and how much money. I did that for about a month in the fall of 1970. And then somebody told me that this job had opened up at a place called Health PAC, the Health Policy Advisory Center, which was this sort of lefty think tank that did work on health care. I was Barbara Ehrenreich’s replacement.
I didn’t know anything about health care. What I knew about health care was working in an abortion clinic for a month and being the daughter of a physician, and being a woman. That’s it. I didn’t know bupkis. But I was getting a degree in women’s history, and I was interested in history. And the person who hired me thought I was interesting and fun. And they hired me on the basis of nothing. And the first article I wrote was on the history of abortion and abortion politics in New York.
Health PAC was this collective. There were about ten of us, I’d say half men, half women. And I essentially was told to do the women’s health stuff. And I didn’t know anything about women’s health. I just knew a little bit about abortion politics, but that’s about it. I got sent off to talk to this wonderful person named Rachel Fruchter, who, unfortunately, we lost way too young also. Rachel was the head of the Women’s Health and Abortion Project in New York, which helped women get abortions and did health education.
And we did things like, if you needed a second term abortion and you didn’t have any money, we would share our addresses, for example, to get people in New York City hospitals. We started doing Know Your Body courses around the same time as Our Bodies, Ourselves came out. People were doing stuff in Boston. And we did that. And I would teach the Politics of the Healthcare System class. Rachel and I did a bunch of stuff together. We wrote – this is my favorite – a pamphlet called How to Get Through the Maze With Your Feet in the Stirrups, a Guide to Women’s Health Care Below 14th Street in New York.
We pretended we had vaginal infections, and we went to all these free clinics or public clinics, and we investigated how they were done. I remember I’m in the clinic, and in those days, you wouldn’t talk to the doctor first. You would be put on the table in your paper gown. I’m in the paper gown with my feet in the stirrups. And this young doctor comes in and he takes one look at me. He takes the paper gown. I had put the opening in the back, and he comes in and he goes like this, and he rips open the gown. He starts to examine my breasts. I’m going, “Wait, wait. What the hell are you doing? I came in with a vaginal infection,” which, of course, I didn’t have. But, “I came in with this vaginal infection. Why the hell are you doing this?”
When we met afterwards, a bunch of us did this. And we met with the head of the clinic. And I said, “Look, you have got to talk to this guy. This is really screwed up. He can’t do this.” And the nurse who had been in the room with us said, “Yeah, he does that a lot.” And I said, “This is really bad. He has to stop. You have to do something about this.” And then the doctor said to me, “Well, you have insurance. Why don’t you see me in my private practice?” And I said, “You don’t seem to understand. We’re doing this to help other women. It isn’t that I needed your healthcare. I have a private physician. It was that we were trying to improve health care for women.”
Rachel and I wrote a pamphlet, actually on vaginal infections. We did a whole bunch of those. It was before Our Bodies, Ourselves was really available yet. We were writing those kinds of pamphlets and teaching classes in church basements and storefronts and things like that. And then I was the health person and the health workers person at Health PAC. I ended up being interested in the history of nursing. I got sent to look at some nursing stuff, and I kept writing history papers, which was driving my colleagues crazy. I did it for three years. I wrote on the politics of health care. I wrote a piece on Lincoln Hospital, on institutional organizing, and we went all over the country giving talks about health care issues, left politics.
It was a great education, because frankly, I didn’t know anything, and I had to learn it really fast. And I had to pretend that I knew and you often had to come up against doctors who didn’t treat you equally. And we thought we had God on our side and I had the women’s movement on my side and I wasn’t going to put up with it. I remember I gave this talk for the North Dakota League for Nursing in Fargo, North Dakota in 1972. And it’s me and a bunch of doctors, and they didn’t know what to call me. And all I kept thinking was the story of some guy who had said to Gloria Steinem, “Is it Ms. Steinem or Miss Steinem or Mrs. Steinem?” And she said to him, “You can call me Gloria.”
These doctors. Look, we’re having trouble with our labels. So why don’t you tell me your first name? Just as I’m Susan, are you George or Fred? And I thought these nurses were going to plotz in the audience. Well, if you’re going to call me Susan, I’m going to call you Fred, right? That’s the way it worked. It was a great education. I learned an enormous amount. It gave me a lot of confidence and I learned how to write really fast. Although it was very hard. I used to take Valium between meetings because sometimes it was just so emotionally exhausting. I also decided I had to finish the MA. So I took a month off from work, finished two courses and my thesis, and finally got my degree.
And then I decided I wanted to go back to graduate school or I wanted to do something else. Meanwhile, during this period, my friends were doing a lot of labor education stuff, and I realized that everybody was doing Xeroxes. I talked to my friend Ros Baxandall, who by that point, was teaching at SUNY – Old Westbury. And I said, “Ros, we should put a book together of women’s labor history stuff so that people have something to teach from that isn’t just a Xerox.”
This is a great New York story. I lived in New York, and I was in a five-floor walkup by this point. And the woman who lived above me on a six-floor walkup was a novelist, but who did taxes as a way to make a living. And she was dating a guy who was a painter at that point. And Toni Morrison collected his art. And he had an opening at the Whitney. And my friend and I went and I got introduced to Toni. At that point, she had just written Bluest Eye, but she was still an editor at Random House.
When I got this idea for this book, my novelist friend upstairs said, we met Toni Morrison. She’s an editor. Why don’t you take the idea to her? I called Toni Morrison up. She was just an editor at Random House. And I said, “Hi, my friend suggested I call.” At this point I didn’t even have a master’s degree. I had dropped out. I hadn’t finished yet. Ros never finished her PhD. She was an ABD – all but dissertation – and she was teaching at Westbury. And then Linda Gordon, the historian, came to town and we knew her from political and other stuff. And Linda said, “Gee, I’ve been thinking about a book like this too.” And I said, “Okay, great, it will be the three of us.”
We made this proposal to Toni, who accepted it. We had this contract. What we did was I left Health PAC, and my about-to-be second husband by that point and I moved to West Virginia for a year. We bought a farm, we lived out in the country, and he was supposed to be working on his dissertation. But he didn’t do very much. And I was working on the book pretty much full time. And I was a labor educator. I was in the Labor Educators local. And I became one of the two representatives from West Virginia to the founding of the Coalition of Labor Union Women.
My about-to-be second husband got a job in Boston at the end of that year in West Virginia. I had applied to graduate schools in New York, New Jersey and Pittsburgh and at Yale. And then Tim got this job in Boston. And I didn’t know what to do. My girlfriends were great. I said, “I can’t follow a man.” And they said, “It’s graduate school. You’ll find a graduate school in Boston. The women’s movement will not fall over.” I couldn’t go to Harvard because I already had an MA and Harvard wouldn’t take me. And there was nobody to work with.
I actually only applied to Boston University, which would take you with the Masters. So, I went to BU. I got into BU in January of ’75. Just before that, in the fall of ’74, Linda Gordon went on leave, and I taught her Women’s History course at UMass, Boston. So that was the first time I’d ever taught. And then I got into BU, and I was going to do the dissertation on domestic service, which was the largest employment for women. But we had no money. And there was money in health. And my advisor said, didn’t you do health?
And I said, “Yeah, but I want to do domestic service.” He said, “Well, can’t you do something in health that will get you money?” I said, “Yeah, I could do nurses. I’ve done that a little bit already.” And it turned out there was a major nursing archive at BU. That’s what happened. I stayed at BU, and I did the dissertation on the History of Nursing, which is really about domestic service for a large part of the 19th century anyway. It was fine. And I did that.
I was involved in women’s history stuff. I went to the Berkshire Women’s History conferences. I did a lot of Coalition of Labor Union Women work for a while. I helped start something called the Massachusetts History Workshop, which was based on the model of the history workshop in England. It was me and two other guys, and we did meetings for older workers on shoe workers. I did stuff on women workers, women shoe workers, women textile workers. We did a conference on women clerical workers while I was in graduate school. So it was that kind of stuff.
I was mostly involved in terms of activism. I’d say labor mostly while I was still in graduate school and history. And then women’s history stuff. And then by a complete fluke, honest to God, there was an ad for this half time one year job. And I was finishing the dissertation on the History of Nursing. By then, my husband was tenured, and I also had a kid. When I finished, I had a five-year-old kid, and I didn’t want to apply for a job a million miles away. I really wanted to raise my child. And we were really stuck in the Boston area.
I had friends who did it – who went hundreds of miles apart. But I just couldn’t imagine it. I just figured I would have my career as a historian when I was a graduate student. And then I would probably go to public health school or something because I wouldn’t be able to get a job. And then this half-time, one year job opened up at Wellesley in Women’s Studies. And I didn’t know anything. I knew about women’s history, but I didn’t know anything about women’s studies. I never taught it. I mean, I knew about the field, but I talked my way into this.
I got hired as Wellesley’s first hire in Women’s Studies, half-time, one year. And pretty quickly they decided they needed somebody full time. And the job got converted to a full time position the next year. This is actually a wonderful story. Nobody ever told me whether or not it was tenure track or not. I always thought I would end up teaching like my husband did at, UMass, Boston. I thought I’d be in a working-class school. I never imagined I’d get hired at a place like Wellesley.
But I knew that the way that you survived in a place like Wellesley was to pretend that you’d been born to the Manor and deserved everything, as opposed to not. This is the place where you forge ahead, and if you made a mistake, you just say, oh, gee, I’m sorry. But you don’t ask permission. I learned from my dad and from my mom, and the women’s movement. I knew how to do this.
After about two years, one of the women who was mentoring me actually was the associate dean, called me up one night and she said, “You don’t have a form D in your file.” And I said, “What’s a form D?” And she said, “It’s the form that says, what year you come up for tenure.” Then she said, “I put one in your file.” And I hung up the phone, talked to my husband, called her back and said, “Elisa, did you just make sure I have a tenure track line?” And she said, “I’m sure they intended it. Don’t worry about it.” And that’s how it happened.
I told the provost that at my retirement party. That was it. I was the first hire in Women’s Studies at Wellesley. And it was great. Because it was Wellesley and it was Boston, we received a lot of phone calls. I did a lot of PR. For example, the news agency, Agence France-Presse, called me when the Wonderbra came out and asked, “What’s the women’s movement position? What’s the feminist’s position on the Wonderbra?” You know what he wanted, right? And I said, “If women want to serve their boobs up on a plate to their partners, why would feminism care?”
They also called on Barbie’s 40th birthday and said, “What do you think about Barbie?” And I said, “Well, I think she’s a bimbo, and I wouldn’t let my daughter play with her. In our family, no bimbos, no GI Joes.” And then I learned how to teach Women’s Studies, about which I knew nothing, so, I had to self-invent. But Wellesley was great. I had great students. It was in the same city as my husband. And then I had a second kid.
I think my activism in that period was mostly around women’s studies and women’s history. I ran the Berkshire Women’s History Conference which was at Wellesley in ’87, and I was the co-program chair and head of the local arrangements committee for the conference which was a huge 2000 person women’s history conference. I’d say mostly I ended up doing that kind of stuff. I helped write one of the historian’s briefs for one of the abortion cases. Mostly the activism was more academic. Building the Department, supporting our students, more like that. We all got professionalized essentially.
I was there for 34 years; I could teach whatever I want. I taught courses on the Politics of Caring. I taught Women in Health. I taught Women’s Health Activism. I taught courses on Identity and Politics in American History. I taught US Women’s History Since World War II. I taught Intro. I taught a course on Passing. I got interested in that for a while. I did a bunch of that kind of stuff. And then I was looking around for my second book project and some of the other things I was going to do just fell through and I ended up getting interested in a nurse named Eunice Rivers.
She had been the go-between of the men and the Public Health Service during the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, which was the longest running non therapeutic research study in the United States history that ran between 1932 and 1972. I started to work on it from a challenge from a friend of mine who had written a book on black nurses and hadn’t really covered Rivers, and she encouraged me to do it. I ended up going to Alabama. I started to do the research, but I realized within a year or two that there just wasn’t enough material to write the book about her. And I ended up editing a collection of essays on the study from various points of view which I had collected.
And then I wrote this book called Examining Tuskegee, the Infamous Syphilis Study and its Legacy. And I spent a lot of time doing that. By then I was involved in groups that were doing work around equity in health and medicine and science, women’s involvement in science and in medicine. I was part of the group, the Legacy Committee, that got the federal apology for the study. We got to go to the White House in the spring of ’97, and I continue to do work with the descendants of the families in Tuskegee.
It really wasn’t women’s history and women’s stuff. But all of my feminism and my experience in feminism certainly was useful in that work. So that’s what I did for the next 35 years. I think it was mostly around education. I did small activist things by then and mostly was doing the teaching and the women’s history and editing books and doing things like that.
JW: How has your involvement in the movement affected your later life, personally and professionally?
SR: Well, like all of us, it had absolutely changed the trajectory of my life, obviously. I don’t think I would have become a women’s historian. I always tell the story that some idiot in the History Department said to me one day, “You seem to be this really good historian. Why do you bother with this women’s stuff?” And I looked at them. I said, “John, I’ve been trying to ignore it all my life, but they just won’t let me.” I don’t know. I really loved it. It gave me my life’s work.
It gave me this wonderful opportunity because by then, nobody was doing consciousness raising. I always taught one class called Ignorance and Orgasm. I made sure nobody left my class who didn’t know where their clitoris was. Absolutely important lesson. Some of that type of activism and things like that. It was a great job. It had its moments, of course, but it just completely shaped what happened to me and how I raised my children. I raised two really good feminist kids. My son is a total sweetheart and a really good feminist. And so is my daughter: tough, strong and loving.
It just completely shaped everything about me. I don’t think there’s anything about my life that wasn’t shaped by the women’s movement. Nothing. The only other thing I want to add is, I think, because there’s still a lot of mis-history about this. We were really clear very early on. I was part of the socialist feminist things. We were always clear that it was never just about gender. I helped write essays for an early women’s movement journal in New York called Up From Under, which was about working-class women’s lives. And I worked in a community of women of color who were my mentors when I was in my 20s.
I always thought about class and race always, and then later, sexuality, obviously. And I think I only stayed straight because, frankly, women are just too much work. It wasn’t about the sex. It was that men are just easier to live with. Women are way too complicated. My mother and my aunt. Oh, my God, they were so complicated and so much work. Men are so much easier to take care of. I’m sort of married to my girlfriends in lots of ways anyway.
I didn’t want to spend all this time on my emotions, and I wanted to write, and I wanted to work, and I didn’t want my personal life to take over my life. I’ve always resented the assumption that all white women didn’t think about race or class. And I think it’s wrong. And we once tried to hire bell hooks, and it didn’t work out – for reasons that had nothing to do with my department. But I had an argument with her. She had just written Women’s Feminists Theory from Margin to Center, and she basically made this argument essentially that none of us thought about race or class, and I said, “Maybe Gloria Steinem or those women who had more publicity.”
But there was an argument, and there were a lot of us who thought like this and who acted like this and who worked like this. My department was really good; we had a multicultural requirement from the minute I walked in the door. We pegged the amount of money that we gave students for their fellowships, met the minimum they had to make to keep their work-study money so that people could do it who didn’t have money. They weren’t just the rich kids at the college. We hired many women of color in my department. It’s the majority of women of color now. I was really committed to this.
Were we racist? For sure. Did we make mistakes? For sure. But were we conscious? I mean, I came out of the civil rights movement, for God’s sake. I came out of people of color activism. It was part and parcel of what was important to me. I spent 20 years of my life writing about racism in American health care. It’s not like we didn’t care about this, so that’s the only other thing I would say that I think is important to correct about the way in which that history gets told. Winnie Breines wrote this book called The Trouble Between Us about racism issues. We did a couple of back and forth talks together in which I critiqued her work. Did we make mistakes? Were we racist? As I said, yes for sure. But did we at least try and do a lot of this and be conscious of the differences? Absolutely, always.