THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“It’s important to hear and preserve women’s voices, so that we can learn from them in the future.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, February 2022
JW: Please give us your full name and when and where you were born.
SW: I was born Susan Wolfe. I now go by Susan Ware, and I was born in Washington, DC, on August 22, 1950. My father was stationed there during the Korean War and was doing his medical training. But I grew up in suburban Chicago. I do get back to Washington all the time because as a historian, all of the repositories are there.
JW: A lot of good stuff here. That’s great. Well, tell us more about your childhood.
SW: Well, as I said, I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, very much a child of the 1950’s. I’ve noticed that wherever I go, women my age, there are always an awful lot of Susans. I think it was a very popular name in 1950. I sometimes think there are no Susans under the age of about 60, but there are a lot of us over 60. There was Susie one, Susie two, and Susie three in first grade. I like to think maybe I was named for Susan B. Anthony. But I do not think that my mother had encountered the history of the feminist movement to name me for Anthony. But I like to think of that connection.
Looking back, it’s clear that I had a very privileged background and upbringing, one that was very supportive of me. My father was a doctor. My mother had gone to Wellesley, as had her mother, and my great grandmother got admitted, but the family didn’t have money for her to go there. Education for women was always very important in my family. And the model that was really held up was, if you are smart, you go to Wellesley, which is what I ended up doing.
But looking back on the 1950’s, my mother had wanted to be a doctor and had been discouraged. She graduated from Wellesley in 1947, married, had two children, always claimed, and I believe her, that she did not regret making the choice that she made to basically be a homemaker and raise her children in the suburbs.
I do remember when Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out in 1963. I would have been 13. And I remember my mother and my aunt who had also gone to Wellesley talking about “that” book. I really thought it was some kind of dirty book. And it was quite funny for me five years later when I’m at Wellesley, when I see what it was and why they would have found it perhaps so unsettling.
But as a historian, I know that Betty Friedan’s portrayal of the 50’s and even of white suburban housewives is incomplete. And my mother was not incredibly frustrated or unhappy or popping pills or spending money so that she could be fulfilled. And many of her friends were also leading interesting lives with volunteer work. Eventually she did go back to school and had a career, tutoring children with special needs.
I always think that we need to take the long view of the decade of the 50’s. And it’s not like women are frozen in time there forever. Many of those lives did change in large part, but not only because of the women’s movement, but certainly it opened up more opportunities for women like my mother than she had when she graduated from Wellesley. My timing was impeccable, and I think that you really can look at women, who are five years older than I am, who were raised with different expectations, many of them married with very different expectations.
By the time I married in 1972, which was actually quite early, quite young, I knew I was a feminist. I knew I wanted a career. I knew I probably didn’t want to have children. That was already out there. There wasn’t that kind of discussion or recalibration that had to go on in many marriages later. I think of so many lives where the men stay the same and the women’s lives just are changing all around them, but that’s a little ahead of the story.
JW: Well, let’s go back to the timeframe. You are at Wellesley.
SW: First I want to give a shout out to the wonderful public education I had growing up in the Chicago suburbs. I was a graduate of New Trier High School, and I just loved it. I loved my teachers, and I kept in touch with many of them for years afterward. I got such a wonderful grounding in History and English. It was really important for me to study Latin, which benefited my writing. It really prepared me.
In many ways, I was more challenged at New Trier than I was when I got to Wellesley. And I have to say that Wellesley and me were not an especially good fit. Talking about timing, mine would have been a little better if I were two years younger, because then I would have applied to Yale or Princeton, and I would probably have gotten in because I was at the top of my class at one of the best high schools in the country. But in 1968, when I graduated from high school, those schools were not open to women. And I didn’t really think of Harvard as being open to women because of the complicated Harvard Radcliffe relationship.
It didn’t occur to me to apply there, but I applied to Wellesley, and by my sophomore year, I had become a feminist. And it was quite clear to me that Wellesley, even though it was run by women and for women, was not a feminist institution at that point. I did have more women professors than I give credit to it now, looking back, but there was no women’s history. It was a fairly socially conservative place. A lot of time was spent thinking about going to mixers at Dartmouth, and I had just assumed everybody would be as smart as I was, and we’d be talking about ideas, not boys. There must have been lesbians in my class but I didn’t know any.
And it’s not to my credit that I was not able to really find a core of women at Wellesley the way someone like Hillary Clinton, who was just three years ahead of me, that was central to her identity. But just because of who I was, this is the time of the anti-war movement, all kinds of things. It just never really clicked for me. I support Wellesley. I send them money every year, but I’ve never been back to a reunion. It gave me a good grounding, but it was really New Trier that I look back on.
Having said that, one of the advantages of going to Wellesley is you never have to explain. You just say, I went to Wellesley, and it opens doors. And for me, it opened doors to going to history graduate school at Harvard in a funny kind of way. And we’ll need to backtrack a little bit about how I got to this point. But by the time I graduated in 1972, I had gotten interested in feminism and in women’s history, and I wanted to go on for a PhD in history.
I applied to Harvard, which I found when I got there was and sort of still is a profoundly misogynistic institution that was quite hostile to anything having to do with feminism or women at the time. And I remember in my application saying that I wanted to study women’s history and that I wanted to do research at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe, which has really been my home base ever since.
And I always wondered why they admitted me if they were so hostile to the field, which really wasn’t even a field yet, so hostile to the topic that I wanted to do. I later realized that there were 14 American History students admitted, 13 men and me, and that Harvard had a pattern of accepting one woman each year from one of the seven sisters. And that is why I think I was admitted.
JW: Wow, talk about quotas.
SW: It was informal. Of course, there were quotas.
JW: But it wasn’t written down anywhere.
SW: But to get to that point of how I decided I wanted to study women’s history, it was really at Wellesley, but having nothing to do with Wellesley in 1970 that I became a feminist. And the way it happened was, it won’t be surprising to someone who’s trained in history and literature like I was, it was by reading books. And there were three books that turned me into a feminist. The first was The Feminine Mystique, the second was Simone de Beauvoir’s, The Second Sex, and the third was Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, all of which I read within a period of about six months at the beginning of 1970, which, as you know from your own personal chronology, is just at that point when second wave feminism was bursting onto the national scene.
I’m too young to have been involved in the sort of early radical feminism. I wasn’t in New York, so I wasn’t part of that. But by 1970, there was a real sense that something was going on, and I just thought, hey, this makes sense for me. I’ve received encouragement all along as a woman, but it’s clear that women are basically treated as second class citizens.
And because I was interested in history, I thought, why don’t I know anything about women’s history? I was able to really combine, in ways that have just been so wonderful for me, my political commitment to feminism with my professional commitment to history. I dedicated myself to becoming a women’s historian and then sharing what I learned through my research with broad audiences and letting women and men know that women do have a history and that it’s incredibly important and it’s never easy, but we need to know more of it. I’ve really been able now for the last 50 years to have a career as a feminist historian where almost everything that I do really reinforces this important change in my life that happened around 1970.
JW: When you started at Harvard, was there pushback on what you wanted to study?
SW: I was told I was focusing too much on women, and there was a sense that maybe that isn’t an important topic. I wrote a paper on Charlotte Perkins Gilman, now recognized as the great intellectual of the early 20th century, and I still have it. I got an “A” on it. But my professor, who was one of the most anti-female professors at the time, you could just tell he was not prepared to admit that Charlotte Perkins Gilman was an important figure, and his comments were really quite amazing.
Luckily, I had two professors who took me very seriously and were supportive. One was my thesis advisor, Frank Freidel, who was a New Deal scholar. And the second was a woman who at that point was a Harvard dean named Barbara Miller Solomon, who had gotten her PhD from Harvard in the 50’s but hadn’t been able, of course, to get a tenure track job. But she became a dear friend and mentor.
And without those two, I never would have survived. But they were very supportive and of course, having the resources of the Schlesinger library there, which I had started using for my senior thesis at Wellesley. I go back even further with the Schlesinger Library, and it gave me enough of a community that I could not block out the rest of Harvard because it’s pretty hard to do, but it gave me a sense of community.
Also, I was able to connect with a bunch of undergraduate and graduate students who were also discovering feminism and wondering why there were no courses in women’s history. Barbara Solomon taught the first course on women’s history, maybe the second one in 1974, and I was her head teaching assistant.
I got to know many of those students, some of them I am still in touch with. And we all really felt like we were doing something so important, discovering the history of women, what women had done. It felt like a revolutionary experience to do this kind of teaching. It was just so exciting, the sense of discovery. And I look back on that and think, wow, that was a really important period for me. But it was done in the context of an institution like most of elite higher education at the time, that did not treat women seriously.
There was one woman professor, a classicist in the History Department. The English Department had never had a tenured professor. That was just the way things were at a place like Harvard. And if somebody had told me back then that in my lifetime, Harvard would have a female President, that she would be a historian and that she would be a friend of mine – I’m talking about Drew Faust – I would have said, what are you smoking? For us, even getting one woman hired in the History Department seemed like a huge barrier. I think it’s a good measure of how things do change, but at a place like Harvard, they change very slowly and usually to their advantage, not necessarily women’s advantage.
For all of the shit that I took while I was there, there was also an incredible excitement and this feedback from students who were so excited to have a teaching assistant – and at Harvard, they do a lot of the teaching – who took them seriously, who cared about women’s history. And as I said, I made some friendships which are still ongoing.
JW: There was really no connection with Radcliffe then, is that right?
SW: Oh, that would take another hour and a half on tape to explain the relationship. There was no Radcliffe faculty. Students at that point still got Radcliffe degrees. In 1971, they started getting Harvard degrees. Basically, there was not a Radcliffe in terms of educational programs, but there were things like the Schlesinger Library. But it’s complicated. And the Radcliffe Institute is what took over from Radcliffe College when it went out of existence in 2000.
JW: Of the women you did research on, what was really an interesting concern to you?
SW: Well, I think when I started out my career, and partly it’s because I was working with a thesis advisor who was the noted New Deal scholar, I started looking into women in the New Deal, and my first book was about a women’s network in the New Deal. Actually, looking back even further – because historians tend to do this – my senior thesis at Wellesley was about the Seneca Falls convention and what happens after, in the 1850’s, and it identifies a network of women.
So clearly this idea was on my mind, and it was also very much a 70’s concept. But it’s a good way of capturing the way women in lots of different places are interacting with each other, and they don’t necessarily have jobs that are putting them all in the same place, but they’re working together and they’re getting things done. That kind of awareness of how women approach political power has been something that I kept for the rest of my career. The great thing about starting out with the New Deal is it introduced me to historical characters like Eleanor Roosevelt, Frances Perkins and Molly Dewson, who I ended up writing a biography of after my dissertation.
I feel very lucky that that is where I started my career. In some ways, it may be that I am sort of circling back to the 1930s now at the end of my career. I’m talking with the Library of America about doing a volume on Eleanor Roosevelt for them. In some ways that would be fitting because she is, to my mind, the most influential woman, if not person, of the 20th century.
But very early on, even though I didn’t call myself a biographer, I was drawn to stories of women. I’ve always in my writing used individual women to focus my stories of women’s history, as a way of opening out to larger questions of feminism. And that was true when I wrote about Molly Dewson and certainly Amelia Earhart and Billie Jean King. I’ve just been drawn in a way that actually most historians aren’t, to women’s lives, and then it kept going up through my book on the suffrage movement.
And it’s just for me, a way of using my skills as a writer. Also, it is a way of engaging and presenting the history that I care about with a broader audience because that’s a way in for people reading history. It’s through the lives of women. And most of the women I’m writing about are feminists. For me, again, it’s a way of sharing my knowledge of the history of feminism and what it’s meant with a broader audience.
That has been a theme of my career and it would not have been possible without second wave feminism unless I somehow came to it all on my own. But I would have been very lonely. And I’ve never been lonely in this field. I’ve always felt surrounded by wonderful scholars who were committed to their work and to activism, many of whom I know you are interviewing for the Oral History Project. I suspect that many of them will have this kind of dual focus of their academic work, but it also serves a broader purpose as public intellectuals, as public scholars in the world at large.
JW: One thing you said made me think of this. You said about how women work together and so forth. And there’s a bit of a theme in the early 70s, I heard from a lot of women about organizing in a way that there’s no hierarchy. The word collective applied to many organizations of women around that time. I wonder if you saw that theme in earlier waves of women working together.
SW: Well, I think since by definition, like if you’re looking at women in government, they’re never going to be in the top position, that’s going to be a man. They’re going to be down a level. In some ways, I think they are less hierarchical and more willing to reach out within their limited circles. They’re not just opening everything up. I didn’t really see anything comparable to that in my graduate school experience.
There’s no way that the experience of being a graduate student, having a mentor, having a teacher. There are hierarchies there, and you can break down some of the barriers, but not very much. And as people like Jo Freeman wrote about at the time, there were some real problems with that structurelessness, that it empowered some and it disempowered others.
JW: Tell me about the women that you mentor. Have some of them gone on to also explore this field, or what have they gone on to do in a feminist way?
SW: There’s so many ways I could answer that. I’ll give two examples, one from when I taught at New York University and the second from when I taught at Harvard in the early 2000’s. One of the things that made being in graduate school stressful for everyone in the 70’s was that there were no jobs. It was a time where the job market had just dropped, the bottom had dropped out of it.
It wasn’t clear what most of us were going to do when we got our PhDs, even though we were coming out of Harvard, supposedly a big deal. I got my PhD in ’78 and it took me until 1986 to get a tenure track job. At that point, I had two books published and a third one about to come out. I had various short term one-year jobs. I taught at Harvard for a couple of years as a visiting something or other. I had grants. I was productive. But it was a tough time.
And I remember when I went down for my interview at NYU and they had said, oh, we’re not sure we’re going to fill this position or not. And it was a position in American women’s history. And I remember coming back on the plane and then just getting home and getting into the shower and crying and saying, I’m not doing these interviews anymore. This is it. I’ll figure out something else to do. And then the next day they called and offered me the job to which I said, are you kidding?
But what it meant was that when I arrived at NYU, they had been building a women’s history program for admitted students for probably five or six years. But they had never had a full-time faculty in the field. I inherited these wonderful graduate students who were often people who had chosen NYU because they didn’t want to go to Princeton or Harvard or Yale. They wanted something more urban, more flexible.
Often, they were older students, not always, nontraditional, but just a wonderful group of mainly women. I then became their dissertation advisor, and it was so satisfying to see them then get their PhDs, get jobs all across the country. We’ve all stayed in touch and do projects together, do panels together. And it was just this wonderful fluke of me coming in at a point when there were all these graduate students.
NYU has changed since then. It’s trying to become much more like the elite Ivy’s, small number of students admitted. Back then, it was much more of a free-for-all, which, of course, benefits women often. I was so lucky to do that. So those friendships and then another one I would point to is with a student named Katherine Marino, who was in a class on feminist biography that I taught at Harvard in 2003 or 2004.
She was a Harvard undergraduate. She was a junior. And we stayed in touch. I was an informal advisor for her senior thesis. Then she went to graduate school at Stanford, and I again kept reading her work and encouraging her. She wrote a path breaking book on Pan American feminism that has come out. She has tenure at UCLA.
And she and I just co-edited a special issue of Signs, which is one of the most important feminist journals, women’s studies journals, founded in 1975. We just co-edited a special issue on first wave feminism that will be out, I think, this summer. It just tickles us both to no end that our friendship was formed when she was an undergraduate and that we’ve kept in touch. And now she’s a “big girl” on her own, and we’re working together, and it’s just very satisfying.
JW: Tell us more about what you’re doing right now.
SW: Shouldn’t we talk about this thing called the pandemic, which totally upended all of our lives? One thing that was interesting for me was thinking about the suffrage Centennial, the Centennial of the 19th Amendment in 2020. Almost ten years before then, I had started looking ahead, thinking that I might like to do something on suffrage. I mean, my first book was called Beyond Suffrage. What a great title. Who knew?
And I had originally thought about doing a biography of Alice Paul, and I gave that up just because I didn’t feel the kind of spark that I think you need to have between a biographer and her subject. I got a great article out of it, which was called The Biography I Couldn’t Write. Now I think I’m going to come back to her, but not to write a book. But I realized that suffrage had been part of my life as a feminist the entire time.
My very first feminist demonstration was on August 26, 1970. I was working in a political campaign in Chicago for an anti-war candidate who was running for the Senate. And Wellesley had given me a summer stipend to go home and work in this campaign. I was assigned to the campaign director, who happened to be a woman and she’s the one who had recommended The Golden Notebook to me because she noticed what a feminist I was.
And when we realized that there was going to be this large demonstration in Chicago on August 26, all of the women in the office, from the campaign manager down to the switchboard operator, and there really was a switchboard back in 1970, we all had a women’s only picnic on the grounds of the Art Institute of Chicago. And we were very deliberate about not letting men come, even supportive men, including the man I ended up marrying.
We are going to do this. We were very self-conscious about it. And then we all went to the demonstration. And that really was my very first. And the thought of it being 50 years later, where did those 50 years go? But I very much wanted to be part of that conversation. That was why I decided probably around 2015 or so, to see if I could find a way to write a book about the suffrage movement that combined biography, but also wanting to make it not just tell the same old story and also included a lot of artifacts from the Schlesinger Library. In a lot of ways my book is kind of a love letter to the Schlesinger Library.
The idea was to get the book out in 2019 and then be part of what we anticipated would be a fairly substantial number of events celebrating the Centennial. Originally, I had hoped before Donald Trump, if Hillary had been elected, we would have been celebrating at the White House. I know I would have been there, but that didn’t happen. And then the pandemic hit, and so many of the events switched online, which is fine in some ways, but it’s really too bad because there’s nothing like the excitement of being in a room with people.
Luckily, I had more than a year where I could promote my book in live events before things shut down. But it’s too bad. On the other hand, I do think that moments like the Centennial, especially when it’s happening in the midst of a contested national election where voting rights are central, was a perfect moment for what I really love to do, which is to share my scholarship with popular, broad audiences, people who are interested in these questions and without saying, here’s 1920, here’s 2020, people make the links.
Voting is important. We know that even more so. It was a wonderful occasion for me to be able to be involved in really what was a larger national civic conversation. I’m very proud of that. Part of me is thinking it’s been 50 years. My first feminist demonstration was for the 50th anniversary of this, and here I am doing the 100th. It’s just somewhat strange, but also very empowering.
On the other hand, one of the main themes of practically every talk I gave was that feminism is ongoing. It will always be necessary. It’s changing, and we just have to keep at it. And I didn’t want to sound Pollyanna-ish, but I do believe that knowing the history and seeing what women have done makes me feel like part of something bigger. That was really what I took away from all the suffrage Centennial events that I participated in. I really got a sense that I was standing on the shoulders of suffragists and that I was carrying things forward. And I’ll keep doing that for as long as I’m alive.
There are younger women who are doing it in their own ways, different from my way or your way – as it should be. But we’re all part of this larger continuum of feminist activism. And unfortunately, as we found – especially during the Trump administration – we’ve made a huge amount of progress, but there is deep, deep resistance there that I think kind of surprised a lot of us. But to me, it just was confirmation of why we needed to continue.
I found that the audiences that I reached out to were very responsive to that and saw this as part of a longer struggle. Again, it just made me feel like the tiny, tiny things I had done with publishing books and mentoring students and giving talks and things like that, but that I was part of something much, much bigger than me. I just keep thinking how the richness of my life of having feminism be part of it for the last 50 years and how narrow and lonely it would have been without that. And even though I get discouraged a lot, as we all do, still there’s an energy and a power to feminism and to women working together, women and men working together on issues of concern to both, that is just life affirming, at least it is for me.
I always say, as do many feminists of our generation, I’ve been a feminist for a long time, and anybody who talks about the death of feminism, I’m going to be a feminist until the day I die. It’s part of who I am, my very core being. The other thing I think about, I remember that sort of heady moment in the 1970’s, especially in the field of women’s history and academia. Sort of like all we have to do is point this out. Women have been important in history.
There are no women on the faculty. Shouldn’t we have them? And it wasn’t quite that easy. And I think that we were a little naive in thinking that all we had to do was point things out and things would change, because institutions, they’re like the Queen Mary, the big ocean liner. It doesn’t turn around very quickly. And part of me also, I look back and I think the amazing changes in my lifetime and yours that were already starting by the time we were able to take advantage of them, and that accomplishment cannot be taken away.
And yet when I went to the Women’s march in 2016 wearing my hand knit pussy hat and I saw a woman of my age with a sign that said, “I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit,” and that just captured it so well.
One thing I did want to mention, I know we’ll be winding down, is the area of sports. A couple of books I wrote were about the history of Title IX and also about Billie Jean King. And Title IX is also turning 50 this June. And there it’s the same glass, half empty, half full that you have enormous changes in women’s sports opportunities that were not available to me when I was growing up. I would have loved to play a team sport.
I’m a really good athlete, and I never had the opportunities to do anything except for gym class in those stupid bloomer outfits. That is a huge success story. And yet it plateaued. The participation opportunities for women athletes plateaued at about 42%, which is not equal. And it’s especially not equal when women make up the majority of college students. So the imbalance is even stronger. So again, you’ve got this amazing progress. A lot of it linked to Title IX, but not all of it. And yet there’s still so much more to be done. And I’m sure that will be a theme in the various commemorations of Title IX this year.
But I do think that one of the things that’s perhaps unusual about my trajectory as a feminist is that I also discovered sports at about the same time that I discovered feminism, sort of that 1970-1972 period. That’s when tennis was taking off. You know, it’s becoming popular. It’s when the running boom started, and I started doing both of those things and they became a lifelong part of my life. Still are. I only stopped running last year partly because I’m up in New Hampshire and it’s too hilly. I realized that I was running at about the same speed I could walk.
But for me, feminism has always had a mind/body component. It’s the intellectual ideas, but it’s also the joy of physical movement, of physicality, of being active, of being strong, of running marathons, of playing tennis, of hiking mountains in Switzerland. But I find that many of my feminist friends have not had that sports experience. I cannot think of too many of a cohort of my close historian friends who have run marathons or who really still go out every day the way I do. I just came in from snowshoeing and on the other side, if you talk to women athletes, very few of them have a feminist consciousness.
They should, but they often don’t. They just want to play their sports. I mean, with the Olympics going on, how many of those women would I identify as feminists? Probably not that many. I think I’m unusual in that for me, these were the two things that really happened that I discovered right about the same time. And then I just have incorporated them into my life ever since with great profit because there’s no way I could write all the books I do sitting at a desk if I weren’t out getting some exercise to clear my mind.
JW: Do you have any closing thoughts you’d like to add?
SW: As a historian, I am delighted that these stories are being collected. Without the stories, there’s no history and it’s important to hear women’s voices and it’s important to preserve those voices, so that we can learn from them in the future. I’m not quite sure what anyone’s going to learn from my life, but it’s important that we have the broadest documentation possible of all the women whose lives were affected by feminism. And if we don’t do it ourselves, it’s not going to get done, which I’m sure was the reason behind this initiative in the first place, and it’s very important, and so I am delighted to be part of it. Thank you.