THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Christina Robertson, PhD
“We need to look at how women can be their very best and have agency and control over their own lives.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, October 2022
CR: My full name is Christina Harriet Robertson. I was born on November 22, 1944, in the city of Philadelphia.
JW: What was your life like as a child? Can you give us your ethnic background, siblings, before you got interested in helping women?
CR: My life was unique in that my parents divorced when I was two, and there were not too many people in the ’40s and ’50s whose parents were divorced. I lived with my mother and my grandmother in a suburb of Philadelphia, and I had a charmed childhood. My mother and grandmother were very creative people and their life revolved around giving me a good childhood. So, that was the wonderful part about my childhood.
I would define myself as Caucasian. My grandmother had an affluent background and had been married to a man well-known in the publishing industry. At one point they had an apartment at Number One Fifth Avenue in New York and a home in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia, where I grew up as a child. My grandfather had business with prominent writers and artists of the day. Our home had floor-to-ceiling books in the library, original artwork, and a Steinway piano (size next to a concert grand), covered with a runner made from a Metropolitan Opera curtain, that took up most of our living room.
On the other hand, my mother, since she divorced, was not affluent at all. She always said, “Oh, I should have asked for more alimony from your father.” When I visited my father he would say, “I wish your mother would get married again so I wouldn’t have to pay alimony.” Thus, I had the experience of the affluence of my grandmother’s home, but felt “poor” because my mother and I did not have much money. It was a curious mix.
My mother suffered from mental illness. That was one reason I think, why my grandmother was so doting on me. She was genuinely concerned, and in that day, you really didn’t talk about mental illness. I always knew that my mother adored me. Even though my mother struggled with mental illness, I knew that she was very advanced, was extremely artistic, very pro-woman, and an independent thinker. And in some cases, she wasn’t crazy; she was just ahead of her time.
I wouldn’t change a thing about my childhood because it really gave me a taste for what some people struggle with. I feel extremely fortunate that I had the childhood that I had.
JW: Did you have any contact with your father?
CR: I had visits with my father when I was growing up. He married again, and he and his wife had a boy and a girl. I was fortunate that I was an only child but also had the experience of having a half-brother and a half-sister. We are very close today and have had fun traveling together. We never refer to each other as “half.” We’re just sisters and brothers.
When I was 15, I went to live with my father although I really didn’t want to at the time. I had met a young man that I was crazy about, and I wasn’t ready to move. I loved living with my mother and my grandmother. However, my stepmother, who could be extremely forceful said, “You better move here, because if you don’t, you could go crazy like your mother.” So that was a wake-up call.
I knew I was not going to go crazy like my mother, but I decided maybe I should move for several reasons. It turned out to be good in many ways. When I moved, my grandmother had the courage to commit my mother to a mental hospital. Of course, today, you cannot put someone in a hospital against their will.
But it was fortunate. My grandmother never would have put my mother in the hospital if I had still lived with her. When my mother was in the hospital, she received the medication she needed. When she left two years later, she was able to have a wonderful twenty years of life. She died young at 63, but she had a job she enjoyed, traveled the world, and was a wonderful mother to me, particularly when I got divorced. But that is another story. She couldn’t have been a better mother for me at that time and I adored her.
My stepmother was also a strong role model for what women could be. She had a successful book business, believed in women’s rights, and was very encouraging to me when I got divorced. She had been divorced before marrying my father. She told me that when she was considering whether or not to get divorced, she was standing on a subway platform as a train was approaching. She thought, “Am I going to get on the train or jump in front of it?” She decided to get on the train and a generation later, so did I.
JW: So, you did get very interested in helping women with divorce, right?
CR: I did. I got married very young. I was 20 years old, and I had one year of college left. Fortunately, I finished. I got married in 1965, and it wasn’t unusual for a woman 20 years old to get married. My then-husband was 21 years old, and we were both very, very young. Neither one of us knew who we were as individuals, and we certainly didn’t know what we expected of one another. You just did not talk about that.
You were in love, and everything else was going to be wonderful for the rest of your life. This is what I thought and planned for. I knew that I was never going to get divorced. I knew that it was my mother’s “fault” that my mother and father got divorced. That was not going to happen to me! I was going to be the perfect wife, and I was never going to get divorced.
My ex-husband, my then husband, was climbing the corporate ladder. He was successful in the oil business, and I was a perfect corporate wife. I moved from place to place with him. At that time, it wouldn’t occur to you to say, “Well, I have my own life. I’m not sure I’m ready to move again.”
The company made it quite easy. The movers came in, packed everything, and off you went. And then the next day or so, you were in a new town and expected to be very happy. And I did that. I was an excellent corporate wife. I raked the shag carpet, I kept everything clean, I was a wonderful cook, I entertained my husband’s corporate friends, I thought I was a good wife. However, the marriage did not last.
My daughter was born in 1968, and then in 1970, a very sad thing happened. We’d just been transferred from Charlotte, North Carolina, to a suburb of Chicago. I learned I was pregnant with twins, and at seven months, they were born prematurely. They lived for a couple of days and died. It was very difficult for me because I had never had to deal with something that profound.
The irony was, that even though giving birth was one of the penultimate experiences that you had as a woman, when something happened, or a baby died, or you miscarried, at the time there was little support. You were just supposed to put on a happy face and go on as if nothing ever happened. So unfortunately, I think that that started things in process. I am really shocked, in retrospect, how horribly it was handled. I never got to see them. I never got to hold them. Today, it is different, and I am thankful for that. But it was an exceedingly difficult period of my life.
Then two years later, my beautiful son was born. That was in 1973. He was the child who was going to make up for all my sadness with the twins dying. He was going to make everything all right. It was just going to be perfect. It was going to be a beautiful birth. And when he was three months old, my ex-husband, then husband, had been working long hours. And, you know, back then, husbands did that. They climbed the corporate ladder, because that was the way they could support their wives and families.
I thought, “Oh, he’s working so hard,” and I found out that he had fallen in love with someone else. This sounds so cliché, but that was really earth shattering to me. I had been so dependent upon him. I was dependent on his earning a living. It never occurred to me that I would have to support myself, or children. It never occurred to me I’d have to buy my own house, if I could get credit.
I knew nothing about divorce. None of my friends were divorced. I was in that first wave of people who started getting divorced. I did have friends who started to get divorced, but it was in the very beginning, and I realized I didn’t know a thing.
It took about a year to decide to get a divorce, and in the meantime, he had been transferred to California and I stayed in Chicago. I decided to move into public subsidized, or section-eight housing, because it was affordable, in a good school district, and I wanted to go back to grad school. I had a teaching degree, but I knew I couldn’t really support myself and my children with a teaching degree.
I wanted to get another degree that would help me earn more money. So, I went back to school, and I got a master’s degree in Counseling Psychology and Administration, and Organizational Behavior. It was an interesting experience. I had to write a thesis for my master’s degree, and it would have either been, how to help women grieve when they lose children, or how to help women who are in the process of divorce.
I was sort of torn between the two of them, and I decided to do the book on divorce. I actually did a lot of research on decision making that could be applied to corporations and management positions, but then I applied it to women in the process of divorce. My first book was published in 1980.
I now laugh and say it was a dreadfully dull book. But it was a book that I needed when I was getting divorced, because it went through the numerous decisions women had to make. It examined your decision-making process, and a lot of women did not make decisions for themselves. It looked at how to select an attorney, how to talk to the children, how to deal with your ex-husband, and how to develop a career. It helped women make decisions on their social life. It just was a good sell.
I can remember one time, this is what I learned; if you are going to be on a book tour, you really should do your homework before you show up at a radio station. I was on the radio in Southern Illinois, which was almost the deep south at that time. I remember I was asked the question, “What do you think about women living with a man before they get married?” And I said, “Well, it is one way to find out whether or not you’re compatible.”
I didn’t realize it, but it was a very religious, sort of right-wing station. So, for the rest of the interview, people would call in and say, “Miss Robertson (I’d changed back to my maiden name), “You make me sick.” Or “Miss Robertson, you’re disgusting and you’re going to go to hell.” I had all these ridiculous calls, and I thought, “Oh my, I should always do my homework.” And so, it was a hard way to learn that. It was quite a learning time for me.
I realized that many women at that time felt less-than. Less than their husbands. And I didn’t realize that somehow, I broke the rules. I started doing things on my own, and I had a couple of accomplishments. Even though I was a very good shag carpet raker, I had my own accomplishments.
There was one time that the Unitarian Church asked if I would join a bake sale to raise scholarships. This was the first biracial nursery school in Charlotte, North Carolina, with the idea that if children got together from different races when they were very young, it wouldn’t be any big shock as they grew older. So, I said, “I don’t think I want to do bake sales, but I will see if I can get a grant.” I knew nothing about getting grants, but I ended up getting a $5,000 grant, which was substantial in that time, and it was renewed the next year.
It didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t be doing this. That somehow, it might be threatening to my husband. And it was. He really, to give him tremendous credit, helped me grow up. And I did. And then, I don’t think he was too sure that he liked who I became. It didn’t ever occur to me that I wouldn’t be able to be exactly who I wanted to be.
I will always be very thankful that I had that opportunity, and he provided that very sheltered opportunity. I wasn’t grown, and I didn’t know who I was when I got married at 20, so I do appreciate that. I also realized that I was very thankful that he met someone else, because I never would have asked for a divorce. I never would have said, “I think we’re going in different directions. Why don’t we separate and divorce?” I never would have done that.
So, I did not feel guilty about getting a divorce. I felt sort of abandoned, and I just couldn’t believe it, but it turned out to be the best thing for me in the long run. Sometimes things can happen which seemed like it’s just such a disaster at the time, but over the years, you think, “Oh, was I fortunate.” And I to this day, I bless his wife because she made that possible.
Later on, I decided to send our children to live with my ex-husband, for various reasons. We were living on the outskirts of Chicago. It turned out to be a slightly dangerous neighborhood. My son had never gotten to really know his father. My ex-husband lived in a beautiful suburb of Philadelphia, in the number one school district. He had more money, and a lovely neighborhood that was safe. So, I thought I would be probably selfish if I didn’t make this choice.
I moved from Chicago where I had a job I liked, and I moved to Philadelphia and had to get a new job. I decided to move to Center City, and so I was the sort of weekend parent and lived in the city, while my children lived in a beautiful, affluent suburb.
JW: That’s very interesting, in that how it repeated a pattern somewhat from your own life.
CR: It did. It did definitely repeat a pattern. I thought that was so interesting. I did have an example that turned out, not perfectly, but there were advantages to it. I think it was extremely painful for me for the first year because I experienced the empty nest syndrome much earlier than I thought I ever would. I think I probably cried every day for about a year, and I even had dreams when I was giving my baby to my ex-husband. I would have these dreams and it was just very painful, but I felt it was necessary to do and it ended up being all right for my children. So, I am very thankful for that.
JW: And all right for you too?
CR: It turned out to be all right for me. I got a job with an out-placement consulting firm, where I traveled all over the country meeting with people who had just been laid off. That was right in the ’80s. Companies started to have tremendous layoffs and I was hired to meet with people right after they lost their positions. And then I trained them to market themselves. I realized that women had no idea how to market themselves and to find a position. They didn’t have a clue about networking. They really did not know how to promote themselves and to interview effectively.
So that is one way I really did help women. I also learned in working with a variety of people, and I think the very interesting thing is, I was particularly effective with blue collar workers who worked in the steel industry. I don’t know why, but I just was. I found out that they were far more resilient than white males who came from very middle-class or upper middle-class backgrounds. Managers had their whole identity wrapped up in what they did, and it was much more difficult for them than blue collar workers.
I really had to do a whole lot more work with manager-level employees so that they would feel all right about themselves, feel worthwhile, and wouldn’t feel their lives were over. It was a fascinating experience to contrast different economic situations that people had, and I found out that the blue-collar workers were far more resilient.
JW: You mentioned you have some accomplishments. I’d love to hear what they are.
CR: Well, I was very happy at how I was able to help women, and this was right as I was getting divorced. After I got divorced, I was able to help them look at who they were, and who they wanted to be. And I did this through working for a number of junior colleges. I taught courses such as New Directions for Women. I worked for an organization that helped women get employment. I had a self-help divorce group where I worked with women to really encourage them that they could do it.
And then I got a wonderful job where I was an instructor and a manager for one of the first adult degree completion programs in the country. I was able to work with people who had two years of undergraduate degrees, and in 48 weeks, they were able to complete their college degree. And they really worked hard. This was not a giveaway program. I mean, they worked extremely hard and had to write what was an undergraduate thesis. It was so rewarding for me because I worked with different kinds of people.
I worked with people who were fairly affluent in the suburbs. I worked with primarily African Americans in the city of Chicago. It was a wonderful opportunity for women who really needed to support themselves, either after they separated from their husbands, or got divorced. For African American women who have never had an opportunity to finish college, and who were doing a lot of wonderful things, but just weren’t getting paid for it because they didn’t have their degree. That was a good excuse not to pay women what they were worth. So, it was a real eye opener.
I also did some work on divorce. I remember talking to a bar association about divorce and how they could be most helpful to women, and what was not helpful to women in the process of divorce. Because I have learned from my own sad experiences, that divorce attorneys were not always very helpful. In fact, it was interesting because when I told the divorce attorney I used, that I was going to change to my maiden name, he said, “Well, you know, people will think your children are illegitimate.” And I thought at the time, he really doesn’t know his law, because if my children were illegitimate, they would have my last name.
I can remember when I went to apply for financial aid at the college where I got a master’s degree. I said, “I’m in the process of a divorce and I’m going to apply for financial aid.” The financial aid officer looked at me and he said, “You know, you’re a very pretty woman. You should get married again.” And then I had a very interesting experience where the head of my internship, he was head of the counseling center, decided that he was going to make a pass at me.
I remember his wanting to come over on Christmas, and I was having the best Christmas all by myself. I was wallpapering my kitchen. My son was home, but my daughter, I think, was with her father. And he said, “I want to come over and bring presents for your children. When can I come over?” And I said, “You know, I really would rather you didn’t. It’s Christmas. I’m having a wonderful time on my own.” And then he said, “You know, you really don’t allow people to give to you. You really need to work on that.”
And that was true. He was right enough to know there were smidges of truth to that. I am extremely independent. I don’t like to accept help often. But he said, “I think you really need to work on that, and I would like to come over.” I thought, well, maybe he’s right. I invited him to come over, and I said, “But this is Christmas. You have your own wife and family. I really would prefer that you stay there.” He came over, and then before I knew it, he was making a pass at me on my couch.
So, there I was. I thought, I must get this internship, because if I don’t, if I did what I’d really like to do, then it’s going to take me longer to graduate, and I just don’t have that money or that time. And so, I was very clever. I said, “Oh, I find you so attractive, but you’re married.” I just did this whole act. Made me want to throw up, quite frankly. But I just had to make it clear that because he was married, even though I found him so attractive, I regretted it so much because he was so attractive, but I just could not do it because he was married.
He left with his pride intact, and I allowed myself to be “helped” and I completed the internship. But it was quite an eye opener about the sexual harassment women faced and sometimes had to maneuver around, because I would have been in real trouble had I done what I really wanted to do.
JW: Yes, but that’s really interesting because you can imagine that women without your strength would just give in.
CR: Oh, yes. And there was my little boy, and he brought over all these toys that I did not want, and I didn’t need, and it was just really repugnant. Women had to go through a lot of that, and that’s the thing I think that really hurts me. Because even though I think we have made, I thought we had made tremendous strides, with women unemployment, and not having to deal with sexual harassment, and having the choice and control over their own bodies. We have taken a gigantic step back and that causes me a great deal of pain and sadness.
I think, “Oh my goodness, how could I have had more freedom and more choice than my granddaughters have today?” And I have four granddaughters, so this gives me a tremendous amount of concern, and really troubles me. I get very angry because I think it just shouldn’t be. I believe at times, that men are the ones in charge and have control, and I really do not like that because it doesn’t work right now.
JW: After you did all that work with helping people get jobs and so forth, were there any other experiences you’d like to talk about?
CR: Yes, my husband. Oh yes. I met the love of my life in 1989. I met my husband, John. I was never going to get married again. I was so wounded and bruised, I said, “I will never get married again.” I was single for 17 years, and then along came John. Two years later we got married. In the meantime, I had updated my book and it was published by Simon & Schuster.
The funny thing was, it was on the cover of New York Magazine because they were writing an article about divorce. My book happened to be out, and there is a picture on the cover, of a man and a woman in bed, turned in different directions, and the woman was reading my book. So that was on the cover of New York Magazine. I thought it was very funny.
JW: What year was that?
CR: That was, I think, 1987, when Simon & Schuster published it. So, I updated it. I got divorced when my children were very young, but now I had teenagers and I realized there were definitely things that I had to add. The irony was, that it was published in Chinese, which surprised me very much several years later. In 1990 it was published in Chinese. And the funny thing is, when I look back on it, my father was a well-known writer of children’s books and a year ago, he had one of his children’s books translated into Chinese.
I had my book first translated into Chinese on divorce. And my husband, who was so supportive, said, I’m going to take you to a Chinese restaurant to celebrate. So, we went out to a Chinese restaurant and my husband said to the waiter, who is an elderly gentleman, “My wife just had a book published in Chinese.” And the man said, “Very good. What subject?” And my husband said, “Divorce.” And the man said, “Very bad.” We got a wonderful laugh out of that. They were extremely interesting times. The publicity tour with each book, and being on TV, it was an interesting experience.
JW: Have you written any other books or that was it?
CR: Well, when I was in my late 50s, I decided to go back to graduate school and pursue a PhD. I did, and it was the adventure of my life. I wrote a dissertation on creativity and aging, because at that point, I was wondering how am I going to handle aging? I had an opportunity to interview extremely creative people. A combination of men and women, and a combination of eminent creators. Creators who would always be creative, but just didn’t work at particularly creative things, and then once they retired, became creative.
I had a wonderful opportunity to do research and to realize that I really loved doing research. At the time, my husband and I were self-employed. We ended up going into business together and worked very, very well together. We did management consulting, and career training and counseling, and we were self-employed for 18 years. I worked at home, and he worked at the office, so it gave us a chance to have our alone time. I really believe I did help a number of women get jobs. And my counseling practice that I had in the past, dealt primarily with women, and many of them were going through the process of divorce.
When I was in grad school, I was awarded the Rollo May Scholarship, which is just one of the thrilling parts of my life. I also got to do some adventurous things. My husband was a motorcycle enthusiast. I was not. And he really wanted to get a Harley. To him, that would have meant that he had just arrived. He’d always wanted his own Harley Davidson, but never could afford it, never thought it was worth it, it just went on and on.
And I can remember being so against this, that I said, and this might sound very awful, so I’ll spell it out. I said, “You know what, if you end up getting a Harley and you have an accident and become a paraplegic, I will bring someone in off the street and I will fornicate in front of you (only I did not use the word fornicate)! So that shows how absolutely against it I was.
But then I had an opportunity to go to the Monroe Institute in Virginia, and it was a way that we could get in touch with things in our lives. And I decided, after I asked, “What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of my life?” and getting some interesting responses, I asked, “What’s going to happen if my husband gets a Harley?” And we had a chance to talk about these things, and we came back in the group, and I said, “I don’t know what the answer is. All I know is that we were riding on a motorcycle, and we had these huge wings behind me.” And I said, “I don’t know what in the hell that means. If we’re going to get a Harley and we’re both going to die, and I’m going to be forced to ride this motorcycle forever in heaven. I just don’t know.”
They said, go back and ask again. So, I did. At the time, someone said, “You know, Harley Davidson has stylized Egyptian wings which are the symbol of a Harley.” And I said, “No, that didn’t occur to me.” I went back and asked again, in this sort of meditation, and the answer came back that we were on the Harley, and we were in this protective bubble, and we would be safe. So, what I did was, I went home, and I bought John his first Harley Davidson for a birthday present.
JW: Oh, my gosh.
CR: We had remarkably interesting experiences, and this is one reason it took me much longer to get through my PhD. We went to Daytona Beach, Florida during Bike Week. I interviewed bikers and John took their photos to learn the meaning of riding Harley Davidsons for people who rode motorcycles. I learned fascinating things. It was a very interesting experience and where I really learned that I love research.
JW: Were there women riders?
CR: Oh, there were many women riders. And I asked them, “What does it mean to you?” And I got fascinating responses. One man said that he had composed several songs that were published when he was riding on his Harley. And I asked, “Does riding a Harley make you feel more creative?” And he said, “No, it just gets me in touch with the man upstairs. He deserves all the credit.” Of course, I did not argue that maybe it is a woman upstairs. I thought I would not insert myself there.
I interviewed people who designed their own bikes. There was one woman who took her fur coat and designed a bike with her fur coat as a seat. She talked about the power of creating, and it was fascinating. I learned then that probably I should have been an anthropologist. I love people who are extremely different because I like to learn who they are.
I’ve learned the importance of having the right lingo. I learned not to say, “How do you like driving a Harley?” I said to my husband, “I’m going to go up and interview for practice, the most frightening looking man on this Harley Davidson motorcycle lot.” There was a man who was totally bald, except for a bunch of hair, I guess it was called a mohawk then. His head was shaved, and he had swastikas tattooed on each side of his skull. And I was really frightened of him.
I went and I said, “Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?” And then I said, “What do you get from driving a Harley?” And he looked at me and he said, “Lady, you don’t drive a Harley, you ride a Harley.” So, I learned how important it is to speak the lingo. I learned how to talk with people who are extremely different from me and how to “get inside their heads,” which is fascinating and great fun.
JW: Well, in conclusion, let me ask you, what do you think your life would have been like if you were born at a different time? What did the era you were in, mean to you?
CR: Oh my, I am glad I was born when I was born. I had many advantages. I realize how privileged I was growing up where I grew up, with enough money, and quite frankly, being Caucasian. I don’t know what would have happened if I had grown up at a different time when I couldn’t get a divorce, when I couldn’t follow my dreams. I am very thankful.
I’m very thankful for my life and while I say I wouldn’t change a thing, that’s not quite true. My husband, unfortunately, has Parkinson’s disease. And what we have done in the past maybe ten years or so, since we’ve retired, is we’ve become active in the Parkinson’s community. I think that that’s another thing that we really need to take care of, because I think most caregivers and care partners are women. It can be extremely stressful, and it can tear you away from your own identity and who you really want to be in yourself. I think that’s something that our culture needs to look at. The aging of America, and what support we could give to people who are care partners, and their partners, of course.
Because we are living longer and healthier lives, we need to consider how older people can continue to contribute to society. My husband and I had an opportunity to help retired people consider what they wanted to create for the next stage of their lives through the program, Coming of Age.
I think we need to look at how women can be their very best and have agency and control over their own lives. And I think we need to do something about climate change, definitely. I want my grandchildren to live. I have six of them and I adore them. Between my husband and me, we have twelve grandchildren, but I am very quick to point out that we’re not overpopulating. That’s simply replacement value because between us, we have six children, and we have three great grandchildren.
I am genuinely concerned about future generations, and I want my granddaughters to have a chance for the life I had. I want my grandson to be just like the wonderful man his father is, who changed lots of diapers and found his family doubled when identical twin daughters arrived. He took them shopping, he irons for his wife, and he cooks. I asked, “What would people say in Rhode Island when you’d take four children grocery shopping with you?” He said, “You get a lot of God bless yous.” I want my granddaughters to be able to be valued for their talents the way my daughter has been in her positions.
JW: Is there any other closing remark you’d like to make?
CR: The closing remark is that I am taking a course in Buddhist Psychology, because I understand that attachment is the root of all suffering. I am very attached to the idea of continuing our democracy and very attached to the idea of women’s rights. I need to develop empathy for people who believe very differently than I believe, and some of those people are in my family. I realize we’ve got to come together as a country. We simply do. Even though I totally do not understand other people, I know that I’ve got to do my best to find common ground. And so that is what I’m working on. But I am really a work in progress.