THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Catherine East
May 15, 1916 – August 17, 1996
“I liked doing the research, writing the papers and having influence on what was done. I never wanted publicity.”
Veteran Feminists of America, Salute to Catherine East at Seventh Regiment Armory, New York City, May 1993
I’m Professor Ariel Hollinshead from George Washington Medical School in Washington, DC. And it’s been my great honor to know this famous and fabulous woman. Quiet, ladylike, very well informed on presidential commissions, head of the Women’s Bureau of Department of Labor. Dr. Catherine East has been an inspiration, and she has been deeply interested not just in women in politics, social areas, law, but also in medicine and science.
She’s one of the very few women feminist leaders who early on took up the notion that women needed to go into the scientific areas, particularly for the future. And she has been very encouraging about our our fellowships. In addition, she is very knowledgeable about educational equity and the laws and can cite all of the details and data so important for people like Steinem and Abzug and other great leaders in the feminist movement. She’s so quiet and so unassuming. She was a backbone for Marguerite Raywald, who introduced the Equal Rights Amendment into Congress. She has always provided the important substantive materials for women so that they could act in an accurate, truthful, and careful fashion.
Let’s hear something from the quiet woman.
Well, I’m a little embarrassed by all this praise because I don’t deserve all the credit for what I’m being given credit for. In Washington, we had a network of women who work together, and I was part of a network, and so was Dr. Hollinshead and many other women. And it was wonderful getting to know them because they were women who weren’t interested in anything for themselves. They were working for other women. And it was a pleasant experience to work with women like that. Not only did they not expect to get anything, some of them were risking their careers when they took up feminist issues because they weren’t very popular in the early days.
Do you think it’s unusual for women to work together traditionally? And why would that be?
No, I don’t think so. I think there have always been groups of women who were, if you go back and read history, they don’t get much publicity. The people who get publicity are the people who are fighting and making extreme statements. But that isn’t the real heart of it. I think in every state in this union, there were women working together to get the Equal Rights member ratified, had coalitions that still exist. A lot of the women in this room have worked on issues that wouldn’t benefit them at all personally. I guess that was the most rewarding part of my job, was working with women like this.
Did you have a strong mother figure?
No. Well, my mother yes and no. Well, I don’t want to talk about my personal life, really.
What issue would you like to see in the forefront now?
Well, one of the things sexual harassment, of course, which is in the forefront because of the publicity and violence against women, and I’m concerned about family law. Women who stay home and take care of children are the most vulnerable women in the society. And that was the most frustrating part of the job, was that every group, every commission I worked for had recommendations on this and felt that family law should be revised so that women who stayed home were considered partners, economic partners. And the law doesn’t do that. It’s changing very slowly, and it’s hard to get publicity for it.
I tried very hard from about 1972 on when I was working to get publicity on this issue, and you just couldn’t do it. Still can’t. You get a lot of publicity now about runaway fathers. They’re concerned about child support because a lot of women run welfare who wouldn’t have to be there if child support were paid. But no one’s concerned about alimony and a woman or a maintenance, but a woman who’s been home taking care of children and doing volunteer work for ten or 15 years is not equipped to go out and earn a living if her husband leaves her.
And I’ve just seen too many of them who not only are devastated economically, but psychologically. And I don’t think we want to discourage homemaking. I think it’s a valuable role for a woman to play, and some women like it and love it and do a good job and but I think they ought to have economic protection.