THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I am energized by the next generation.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, September 2021
VB: I’m Vicki Breitbart. I was born in Brooklyn in 1942 and lived most of my life in Brooklyn. My father was a doctor in a working-class community. He was the general practitioner, and so the family doctor for the community. And we lived behind his office in three rooms. And I just adored growing up there. We moved when I was twelve, and I really felt like I was relocated to a foreign country because it was a huge house in a community where you no longer played in the street and you no longer could just go out and meet your neighbors. That was also in Brooklyn. I went to junior high school and high school in that neighborhood of Flatbush.
JW: Tell us a little more about what your childhood and teenage years were like before the women’s movement.
VB: I think my family was definitely my foundation. My mother was going for her Masters in biology, actually, at the time she married my father, who actually was a doctor. And it was sort of an arranged marriage because my grandfather had paid for his medical school in Austria. My grandfather, on my mother’s side, had paid for his medical education. It was sort of an arranged marriage. And as soon as she married, I think she stopped basically pursuing her own life – this is a very familiar story – and was his assistant in the office.
And we lived behind that office for a good number of years. But family was really the most important thing in my life; it was an extended family. I come basically from a matriarchy where my grandmother was an incredible force of loving and caring and cooking. And we would really gather around our table on Friday evenings. And from very, very young, I went to my grandparents on the weekends. And I had an aunt who was only about 14 years older than me.
And that was very formative for me. She really helped to establish my identity and who I was. She was the one who was responsible for my sex education early on, and a lot happened over those weekends. But it was really a sense of extended family that is so important to me. I think everything I’ve done has really been about family and about creating, nurturing, and caring communities like the one that I had.
JW: Just a few initial questions still. Do you have siblings? And what was your ethnic background?
VB: When I was three, my mother had a stillbirth, which I think was also a pretty formative experience for me, even though I only have just begun to be aware of that. And then my mother gave birth to my sister, who is six years younger than me. It’s the two of us, basically. And she’s actually a physician’s assistant in reproductive health. It’s really part of the family for sure.
I’m Jewish. One of my grandparents was actually an immigrant. The other had been here maybe for a generation before they were married. They both came from Eastern Europe. They also belonged to larger kinship organizations, so it was very much a part of an immigrant and family community that I was born into.
JW: How did you first became aware of the women’s movement?
VB: I’m not sure. I’ve been struggling with that. In 1968 I joined Newsreel. My second husband was a filmmaker, and I joined Newsreel with him, which was a radical filmmaking group. And the thing that really attracted me was not so much about making films, because that never interested me that much. It was very much about the political work that we did, because I was responsible for taking the films around and using them as propaganda, basically. And I also distributed the films.
We had films from Vietnam. We had films from Cuba, so it’s really very much an anti-capitalist progressive organization. I was part of that for a couple of years. I did get to learn how to make films; I was very much a part of that community. But I think my real awakening was when I was chosen as the only woman to go to the National Newsreel meeting. We had a Newsreel in Chicago. We had Newsreel in San Francisco and then the one I was in, in New York. And this was the first national meeting we had.
And the discussion there was on such a high level. Clearly, people who had done reading, who knew the history of progressive movements, clearly understood the relationship to the black liberation movement in the country at the time. And it just blew my mind. And I came home and I was going to bring all of this information back to the meeting and the three other men asked to meet me in my apartment with my husband, and basically told me to be quiet. And from that moment, I realized that was not what was happening.
I was already in a consciousness raising group and how that happened I’m not absolutely sure. It was in the atmosphere at the time, and it just made so much sense to me. I basically left my work at Newsreel and worked with people from my consciousness raising group to form something called the Women’s Union. And it didn’t last that long. But it was incredibly productive in terms of the work that we did. I had been working in education at the time. I was a director of a Head Start.
I then worked in daycare and did work with daycare workers. My contribution to this women’s Union was really about child care and the role of child care in the women’s liberation movement. And that was really where I got my education and where my passion just blossomed.
JW: Did you stay with that for a while or did you move into other issues?
VB: Well, I joined a group called the Community Control for Daycare led by an incredibly powerful woman, Dorothy Pitman-Hughes, who I will never forget, who really had a lot to do with my political education. And I worked in daycare. At the time I worked with the Daycare Union. They were on strike and we had a coalition where we basically tried to support their efforts. In fact, I have a picture in 1969 where I’m trying to rescue the head of the Daycare Union while she was trying to get into City Hall and it was on the cover of the Daily News.
I was very active in trying to make that coalition. And then shortly after that really got in touch with how segregated child care was within the country. I wrote an article early on called “Day Care, Who Cares.” It was about how the industrial military complex was basically using daycare as a way to put women in the workforce and take women out. And it was not really for the benefit of families. And so that was my political work. And we had a sit-in in the Commissioner’s office for Daycare because we objected to the fact that Daycare was so segregated. It was not provided for all and [I] actually got arrested with my two-year-old daughter at the time.
Most of the efforts were around that. Also, with my husband and other community members, we took over a store front on the Upper West Side and opened it up for our own daycare center. We turned on the electricity, we turned on the water. We created a whole atmosphere. I knew from education what kids needed. And we ran our own daycare center in this squatted place. And for me, that was a large part of how I really worked politically. And it was always connected to my sense of being part of a larger women’s and feminist movement.
JW: Now there’s a lot of attention on low pay for childcare workers. Was that an issue at the time?
VB: Well, I think my work with the Union and when they were on strike, it was clear that while teachers themselves are never paid what they’re worth, certainly daycare workers are not paid what they are worth. And I did work with community daycares around the city, both as professional and also as a community organizer. We would go into different communities and in the daycare centers we started – and I’ve started daycare centers and childcare collectives – and we made sure that the staff was paid what they were worth for people who were basically helping to socialize and raise our children and create a community for them.
So, yes, that’s an issue. I think there’s legislation now to make child care more of a federal responsibility, and I’m certainly supportive of that. That is clearly now seen as part of our core infrastructure. I think it’s essential. I don’t want it to just expand the segregated form of child care, but really as part of the public education system.
JW: I do recall that there was a child care bill. I believe it passed Congress and Nixon vetoed it. Do you recall that?
VB: Well, yes, that’s about the time I wrote that article about “Daycare, Who Cares?” Because it was clear whose interest it was in. It was in women’s interest certainly. It was in family’s interest. It was in men’s interest. But it was not in the interest of the government to really support that.
JW: If I recall, the theory was we would be like communists, daycare centers and women can do their job.
VB: Well, all of that is so disguised as anti-women. I mean, just like all the abortion legislation now. It’s really about anti-women. Whatever other take they give to it, it just covers up that issue.
JW: The underlying problem that we still face. Yes, we’ve made improvements, but we have a way to go. Do you have one memorable or important experience you’d like to tell us about from that time?
VB: Certainly, taking over an abandoned building, creating our own child care center was pretty memorable. It really gave me an opportunity to experience the very action that I was supporting on a larger scale. And it also gave me the experience that later led to my going to different communities around the city with other people who were in the women’s Union, actually, to try to organize around childcare.
So that moment was very pivotal. We went on to form others. My daughter was in a childcare center that was collective, and my grandchildren also went to a collective in Brooklyn that was formed at the same time. I have reaped the benefits of all that work. That was an important moment. That was pretty pivotal.
JW: And did you stay active over the years or you moved into other issues?
VB: I realize the importance of working in community. And I went from being a classroom teacher, being a director of Head Start, getting my social work degree and seeing the whole issues in a much broader context. And my first job after social work school was actually a director of counseling, which included a childcare center within what at the time was called the Shelter for Domestic Violence. I really do believe in the intersectionality of all of these issues.
So that was a chance to start putting that together. And then I went to the local hospital to work on the OBGYN floor, which was an incredible experience for me. And I think one of the most important pieces of that was when I got together with the chaplain, with the obstetrician, with the head of labor and delivery nurse, and myself, and we formed a bereavement program. Because it was clear to me that in this whole spectrum of raising children, there was also the loss of pregnancies. And as I said, it goes back to my mother’s experience with stillbirth, that was never talked about. So, we started this bereavement program.
And then I went to the Department of Health, where I was part of a very large city initiative to reduce infant mortality. And what was beautiful about it is that it had multiple aspects of educating people and service delivery. So that was pretty important. And when I was there, we also formed something called the Prenatal Care Steering Committee, which created funding for prenatal care for women, that did not exist before. And it also wound up creating a funding stream for women who wanted to terminate their pregnancies.
We were pretty instrumental in the state forming something called PCAP, which is the Prenatal Care Assistance Program and through PCAP, because of your income, but also because of your pregnancy, you could get public assistance. And then it turned out, if you are on Medicaid in New York after 1970 and 1973, for sure, you could also, if you’re on Medicaid in New York, get an abortion. And women used it for the full spectrum of reproductive health care. And that’s something I’ve also certainly supported, is a comprehensive view of the issues.
And when it was found out, there was really a lot of pushback around that. And we had to just quiet down about the availability of PCAP, but we never stopped organizing around it. But we met with the head of the New York State Assembly, and basically, were told, okay, you can continue to do this, just don’t talk about it a lot.
JW: Tell me about the Older Women Who Remember And Speak Out group. How did that get started?
VB: Well, I’ve been involved in these issues and have been very active in reproductive justice for the last 20 years. And I invited a few friends to come in here and talk about the status of reproductive health. I guess this was about five years ago. The status of reproductive health in this country, the status of reproductive justice in this country, and what was going on. A lot of it was about medication abortion as well, because I was part of introducing that at Planned Parenthood. It was an opportunity to bring in other people who had not been that involved in reproductive justice.
I invited several friends and afterwards they were just alarmed by what was happening, what was not happening and all of the political action around it. And we met and decided to get the word out as best we could. So we formed Older Women Remember And Speak Out to create these e-blasts, and we’ve created ten e-blasts around different aspects of reproductive justice. To me, that was bringing in the whole idea of second wave feminists into really the present in terms of what’s happening now and using our experience, as second wave feminists, to really talk to people about the importance of these issues.
JW: How has your involvement in the movement affected your life, professionally and personally?
VB: My life’s work has really all been around redefining family and making sure that children can really have a safe and sustainable community. My personal life has definitely been affected by it, affected by it in terms of the daycare centers I’ve started and been part of. I also live communally for several years in terms of really thinking about creating our own extended family. And I lived with another family as an outgrowth of that commune, and we are basically family. And my son, he calls the other children in the extended family his brothers and so forth.
I think the other really personal part that I haven’t mentioned so far, is that I had a daughter who was born in 1970. She was an amazing person in her own right. When she went to college, she was a family planning counselor at college. She then went on to basically work in an abortion clinic. And she was a counselor in an abortion clinic when she decided to go cross country and decide whether she was going to go into social work or health or whatever.
And she died in a pretty tragic accident in 1995 in Glacier National Park. There was an avalanche as a result of rains that had gone on for weeks and weeks and weeks. I hadn’t labeled it as a climate change problem at the time, but certainly that was the beginning of it. And her death really catapulted me into another whole level of involvement. Where there was that spark, certainly before, I mean, that created the fire.
And I went from doing a research project that I was involved with at the time, which was about maternal fetal conflict, and was the result of all the work I had done at the Department of Health and Health and Hospitals Corporation. I went back to wanting to work directly with women. My personal life and my political life and my movement life all came together in 15 years that I spent at Planned Parenthood in working in the clinician training initiative and then several other administrative physicians and clinical service and then led to other work around these issues. But that was where my personal life and my political life really very much came together.
While I was at Planned Parenthood, I was also the President of the Public Health Association of New York. I was also President of the National Abortion Federation, and I was part of that movement for a long time. I worked inside and outside organizations and institutions, inside government and outside government. All of those strains have really been both my personal and my professional life; all coming together to work on redefining family and redefining how we relate to one another and redefining our whole idea about child rearing.
I think it’s important to add that when I had the two children, my first daughter and my son, my husband and I absolutely shared child rearing. So non-sexist joint child care has also been a real theme in my life, and that’s the putting together of the political and the personal for me, very much so. And recently I wrote about my daughter’s death and I wrote about how it led to my adopting a daughter at the age of 55. And I wrote about it, that whole experience, and I brought it to my women’s group, which is an aging women’s group. Not ours, but another aging women’s group.
And they said, this is something that needs to be turned into a book. I had interviewed 20 people. I had gotten what the themes were and the ideas were and how much this represented the stigma against older parents, was one more stigma that we as women carried around that needed to be debunked. And I put together, with a longtime friend of mine, Nan Bauer-Maglin, we put together a book which was published September 21st, called Tick Tock: Essays On Becoming a Parent after 40.
It’s amazing how many women this speaks to. And I don’t know about you, but all the negative comments, I certainly got all of them. And this book tries to debunk that and really talk about, again, the whole idea of family as a way of creating communities, family and redefining family, who is a family, how you think about it. This book also talks to another stage of my life. The book has also been an opportunity to talk to more people about this experience. And it is so much part of our experience as women, where our lives and our choices definitely can run against the social norm and the way that society has been set up, about how this should be created. And it’s been an incredible experience, about how many people the book talks to. Read the essays, because each one is a total gem.
First chapter is “Why did you wait so long?”. The second one is about pregnancy, those who used advanced reproductive technologies and we have someone in the book who actually gave birth at the age of 58. And the third chapter is about adoption. The fourth is just about the experiences of being an older parent and living with that. Actually, we have a child of an older parent who also has an essay in that part. And the fifth is about creating community. And about how this really calls for a radical change in the way we think about, again, women’s choices.
I mean, I will say that in many cases, being an older parent was more the result of circumstances than choice, but certainly all of that, all of that needs to be questioned and women’s lives just need to be affirmed on so many different levels. And you might not have seen the other letter to the Times that I had, which was really about countering this whole what was called crisis about the decline in the birth rate. People are just up in arms about the fact that women in their twenties and thirties are not having children.
And that letter basically talked about how hard it is to have children in a society that really does not support families. Without family leave, without child care, without equal pay. No wonder women end up being over 40 to have children. The other thing I want to add is that this has been a really marvelous opportunity for me to see what the themes have been, woven throughout my entire life and how my whole life has really been about family, redefining family and creating opportunities for us as women to really develop, in whatever way we want. I got a chance to think about all of these things over time, and they just all hold together with that as the basic theme. And I’m so thankful for the opportunity to look at it as a whole.
JW: Thank you for the last interview, Vicki, and we realized we have some more questions. I’m going to start right out with, how do you think your experience laid the groundwork for the next wave of feminists?
VB: Well, there’s no doubt that the second wave was built on a century of work that women had done. And I think it’s true that we need to think also of going forward and what is the legacy of the second wave? And how has it affected others? I’ve always felt that we really are doing this for ourselves and future generations. After my daughter died, the one thing that was clear to me is that I needed to set up some way that her legacy would continue.
I started something called the Lela Breitbart Memorial Fund, and the purpose of that was actually to fund young women doing work around reproductive rights, the way we called it at the time. And we would get together and from our collective knowledge, we knew what was happening in certain places across the country and we would give small amounts to continue their work. And the first one that we funded was called Third Wave, interestingly enough. And I got involved with supporting them throughout the years, and they were really committed to building the next generation of women doing this work.
And that became very important to me. Of course, I couldn’t join the board. The board actually was meant for women who are under 35, but I always supported them and worked with them in that capacity. And one of the most important things I’ve done in addition to that is work that I’m doing with a group called Collective Power for Reproductive Justice. It used to be known as CLPP and one of their main missions is really to build an emerging leadership.
In fact, one of the programs that they do is called Emerging Leadership, where they bring people together from across the country who are already working in the movement, to really talk about leadership, to talk about the movement, to talk about the direction. And they also have a program where they fund interns that work with existing reproductive health organizations. And I went to a Zoom of this year’s, and they’re called RRASC interns, and it was amazing how even through the pandemic, they offered the groups and the organizations they were working with – with their skills – brought the organizations in to work with technology that the organizations had never thought of.
They created their own podcast. They created a mechanism for people to join their work on the websites. They learned about the movement. But the movement really gained a lot from them, and that’s the kind of carrying it on and building future generations to do this work. In fact, I recently read something called The Fourth Wave of Feminism. We can talk about that more in terms of where the movement is now and where we need to go.
JW: Do you have thoughts about that, the Fourth Wave and where we need to go?
VB: Well, it’s weird. It already is in some ways, because I think I’ve learned a lot since my involvement in the 1960’s and 1970’s, a long time ago. And one of the things is that all of the issues that we really talk about in social justice are very interconnected, and that’s really part of what I understand the Fourth Wave is. It’s about intersectionality. It’s about how all of the issues really work with and for each other. So that reproductive justice, which is the term actually that is used more now, reproductive justice needs to be combined with economic justice, racial justice, anti-homophobic work. All of these issues really intersect with one another.
I remember one of the groups I was in, early in the ’70s, of health workers. We were all involved in health in some way. We talked about the difference between reproductive rights and reproductive freedom. The freedom was the ability to actually act on what your rights are, because there’s so many things that sort of get in the way of that, in terms of race and class and gender. And now the phrase is reproductive justice, which carries it one step further, in understanding that it’s really about the direction we need to move in, in terms of understanding that our work in terms of sexism is really connected to the work on anti-racism and anti-homophobia and all of that. Those kinds of connections, I think, is really what I think I’ve learned from the third and the fourth wave of feminism that I hope really influences my work.
JW: Some people talk about reproductive justice, it’s if you want to have a child, when you want to have a child, and how you want to have a child. So of course, a lot of women, as we’ve worked on, want to not have a child, at least at that time. But there’s a lot of women who would like to have a child, but they don’t have the money or they live somewhere where there is a lot of pollution, and it’s not healthy. And all of it really comes together in what is reproductive justice. It’s all of those things,
VB: Right. It’s personal bodily autonomy. It’s also the right to have children or the right to not have children. And I think what has been a large part of my life, to really parent children in a safe and sustainable community. That I think is what I started with in terms of my work in day care and what I’m most involved with now…the need to redefine family, redefine community and redefine what it means to really have children, raise children in a supportive community…In some ways my work has come full circle. A totally new narrative about the family is, I think where I started and where I feel very comfortable participating in at this point in my work in the movement.
I am energized by working with young emerging leaders, and I’m energized by the next generation. I get a lot from the energy of emerging leaders and this next generation. And I think that’s what we have to sort of sustain is that learning that we need to continue to do that, that expanding what we need to do, that inclusiveness that we need to do, and that it’s never ending. This journey of where we want to go is just an exciting one, but it’s very complex and we need to have as many people and the strength of our differences to achieve what we are trying to achieve.