THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
Dr. Myrna Goldenberg
“I was born on March 8, International Women’s Day. I was destined to be a feminist.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, Oral Historian, October 2022
MG: I’m Myrna Goldenberg. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on March 8th, 1937. So, the March 8th should ring a bell. International Women’s Day. I was sort of destined to be a feminist.
JW: Tell us a little about your childhood and your ethnic background, siblings. What do you think put you on your path? Besides your birthday, I mean.
MG: Well, I came from East New York, Brooklyn, which was a kind of a tough neighborhood. My brother was nine years older. Normal Jewish home. Let’s put it this way, it was a very comfortable, very loving, very warm environment in my building growing up, because every apartment was a relative. So, I had my choice of where to eat every night. It was just a good background. I went to public schools. I went to CCNY uptown, and I got the best education that you could get. It’s just remarkable.
But there, I was silenced. I was at CCNY the second year it became coed, and none of the professors were comfortable with calling on women in their classes. It was kind of clear. So, I was almost silent for four years. I just never said anything except to my classmates. But then I went to graduate school. I met my husband when I was 15.
He lived across the street. We went to the same high school. In fact, I have to admit that I went to CCNY and not Brooklyn College because he went to CCNY, and we went on the subway together. So, it’s kind of a very romantic background between us, and we’re still married, and it is 65 plus years.
It really is a beautiful story. It’s a love story. We have three great kids…two of whom live in New York City and one in Boston. The one in Boston is our youngest. She’s a teacher. An English teacher at Milton Academy. My oldest child is Liz. She lives right across where the World Trade Center used to be. But she works for Bloomberg, and my son is a psychiatrist on the Upper West Side. It’s very comfortable. I just consider myself blessed. I have had my share of what everybody else has had, woes and all that kind of stuff. But really, I’ve had a blessed life.
JW: Do you want to say what CCNY stands for?
MG: City College of New York. I don’t know how many of the viewers realize this, or are aware of it, it was a scholarship school. You could not buy your way in. And it was a tough school. At that point, it had more Nobel Prize winners than even Harvard. It was a very competitive school. The first day, the provost or dean or whoever it was, welcomed us into this gorgeous, great hall and said, look on your right, look on your left. In a year, half of you will not be here, and he meant it. It was very competitive.
JW: Let’s talk about how you got interested in women’s studies and women’s issues.
MG: I don’t know when I wasn’t interested in women’s issues, I really don’t. After graduate school, we moved to Teaneck, New Jersey, and then we moved to Ohio, and then we finally wound up in the DC area. I had three young kids, I was very interested in what was going on, and that was really the feminist movement at that point. Early ’70s and so on.
I tried to connect, I don’t know if you remember this, but in this area, it was very strongly I’m embarrassed to say, it but I have to say it, almost anti-husband. And I was not anti-husband, so I didn’t connect very well. But, very soon after that, I became a faculty member at Montgomery College and recognized there, that there needed to be a women’s studies program, and I helped develop it and got involved in the Women’s Studies Association.
Part of the community college faction of that, or group of that, and that was feminism. That was it. There were very, very strong women in the Women’s Studies Association. For a while, I was even on the board, so I never didn’t think of myself as strongly feminist.
And one day in the elevator at Montgomery College, the head of the English department, an older, gray haired, kind of an uptight guy, said to me in the elevator, “You’re going to be the next chair.” I was stunned. And I said, “No, I’m not ready.” He said “Yes, you are.” I said there was another woman, I thought, who would be angry if she didn’t get it first.
So, I said, “Let Anne get it, and then I’ll follow, if that’s okay with you.” And of course, it was, and I became the chair of a department with 73 faculty members. We wound up dividing it. I mean, you can’t run a good department that way.
JW: What department was it?
MG: English and Philosophy Dept.
MG: I can’t tell you one moment when it wasn’t foremost a part of my life. It was women’s work, women’s studies. Especially Jewish women’s work, was very much what I was interested in and worked on. Eventually my dissertation was on a woman named Annie Nathan Meyer, who was the founder of Barnard College, who never got credit for it. Or didn’t get credit until maybe 20 years ago, after a long time of being denied credit.
I was looking at my resume, trying to pinpoint a time, a turning point. If there was a turning point, it was this Dr. Yarnell who said, “You’re going to be the next chair.” And I thought to myself, “Wow, that’s what he thinks of me, maybe I ought to start thinking of myself that way.”
It was funny because then I thought about it and I said, “Why did I need a guy to tell me that?” I had all these leadership qualities? My husband had been pushing me to be a leader and was always enabling me, so it was the most natural thing. It really was. I taught women’s studies, I taught women’s literature, I was very strong on minorities of women’s literature.
The Ford Foundation gave me a grant at one point to teach minority literature, including women’s literature, all over the country in community colleges. Took two years to do that. And even in Native American community colleges, where the women were so unappreciated, and being able to bring them to the foreground and to have women tell the stories of their tribes, you felt great doing a thing like that.
And teaching, this is kind of odd, but going to minorities of community colleges in the south, and in LA, and talking about teaching Black women’s literature to people who had been thinking that we need to teach the standard White curriculum so that our students can make it and so on, to give them Zora Neale Hurston and Pauli Murray and so on, that was just exciting for me.
JW: I want to go back to the Native Americans because I always had this understanding that women could be the chief. I think of Wilma Mankiller, but maybe she was an exception. You’re saying women really were not regarded that well?
MG: Women were regarded that well, but they were not the teachers. When we went to two large community colleges in the Northwest, in fact, the dean was a Native American woman who said, “Yes, we want you to come and talk, but who knows our history? It’s the women in the tribe who know the history.” And so, I organized, actually they called it a Pow Wow, and it was part of the Osage tribe, and it was a huge, huge gathering.
We had the older women of the tribe talk to, actually the next generation, admonishing them to not forget their heritage and to be proud. It was the women who kept the history. They were sort of the historians of the tribe in a very real sense, not in an academic sense. And then afterwards, we took that history, we had it published, and we gave it to the tribe.
And they couldn’t have done it without the Ford Foundation’s big deal of $10,000. That’s all it took. But what the foundation even said to me was, “Do you need more money, we’ll find it, we’ll do it.” It really was a wonderful time of our growth, and it was wonderful.
JW: Tell us a little about this woman who founded Barnard.
MG: I was studying the history of higher education in America, and I was very interested in women, and why do I need women who founded colleges? And I happened upon the diary of a woman, not a diary, her autobiography, because you just scoured libraries and bookstores and so on. Annie Nathan Meyer. She was a tiny Jewish woman who, at the age of 15, went over to Columbia College.
They had a course, it was men, of course, but she went to the library and told Dewey of the Dewey Decimal System, “I want to study the same thing that men study.” And he was really annoyed with her. She was in his way, in a way. And she had finished the course that he had set out for her, and he said, “You can’t go to this college, so start your own college.”
Literally, that’s what happened. She went from rich person, to rich person, to rich person, which she identifies in a book called Barnard Beginnings, asking for pledges to build a woman’s college. And she got them. This was 1885, 1883 or 1885. And the school opened in 1887.
It took a while to build that up. It had, I think, in the beginning, eight women students. I don’t remember the number of faculty, but it had faculty. It had a dean, and it grew, obviously. Eventually, though, she went to Jacob Schiff. Jacob Schiff wanted to give $750,000 dollars in those days. I don’t know what it is now, but it was quite a sum, to build a dormitory for women students, and she said, “Fine.” Nicholas Murray Butler, head of Columbia said, “Fine,” and she wanted it named Schiff Hall.
And that was the beginning of Columbia’s refusal to acknowledge the Jewish heritage of both her and even Schiff. I found documentation in the Columbia manuscript room of Nicholas Murray Butler writing to Virginia Gildersleeve, who was the dean at Barnard. “Oh, we can’t allow it to be named Schiff Hall, because then it will attract too many Hebrews,” and so on, and so on, and so on.
So, there was a lot of antisemitism. It was a shocker for me to have proof of that. And actually, Annie, when she died in the 1950s, she had been named a trustee of the school, and she was a trustee all her life, but she was a very, very feisty little lady, and she would not give up.
Finally, Schiff said to her, “Let it go. I’m giving you the money, and I know what’s happening with trying to name it for me.” It became Barnard Hall. Frederick Barnard did not believe in coeducation, but he believed in women’s education, and he was a compromise.
But Annie did not give up. She was, to the very end of her life, actively recruiting not only Jewish students, well, she didn’t have to recruit them, they came, but she also fostered and sponsored Zora Neale Hurston as a student at Barnard. It really is a fascinating story.
She also wrote about five novels, none of which were very readable, that’s the truth. She also wrote and had published 350 letters to the editor in the Herald Tribune. She was interested in everything, and said so. And she was a playwright, that had several plays on Broadway, none of which lasted long.
Her plays were very talky, and they would have been terrific for radio programs but she didn’t see it that way. She wrote a very good play that was on Broadway for a while called, Black Souls, which attacks discrimination. And really, she’s underappreciated. My dissertation has been quoted a heck of a lot. It’s something that I want to work on now, and get republished, or published as a book, not as a dissertation.
I got involved in Holocaust literature and Holocaust history right after I got my PhD. My husband and I took a trip to Europe. He was doing something in Vienna, and we wanted to visit Auschwitz, but he had very high clearance, so we couldn’t do that. The State Department, said, “Why don’t you go to Majdanek?” And we went to Majdanek, a concentration/death camp, and it changed my life.
We were the only two people “touring” the camp that morning, and I wound up in the gas chamber accidentally. I didn’t know where I was. It changed my life. It traumatized me. I recognized in an instant that I was in a room like no other. I looked up, and there were the pipes with the gas jets. There was no drain, it was a white tiled room with blue streaks, and it was the gas chamber.
My next recollection was that I was in another building. My husband said I was screaming, and he came to get me and that changed me. That was a turning point.
I immersed myself in Holocaust history and literature, and I asked, along with other women, “So where are the women?” We have tons of memoirs by men that were written and published, but there were very few published memoirs by women. There were about seven of us, meaning feminist historians, who were interested in this subject, who were ultimately, I guess, excoriated by the Commentary Magazine editor Gabriel Schoenfeld, who got wind of what we were doing, which was trying to bring the life, and the death, the stories of Jewish women in the Holocaust, to the academic forefront.
We gave papers on it, and he said we were diluting Holocaust history, but it didn’t deter us. In fact, it made us very, very visible from Commentary Magazine and even on the front page of, at one point, the Wall Street Journal. And we just started doing women and the Holocaust. And that became my passion with a few other women. And now I would say that we absolutely have changed Holocaust history and brought insights that wouldn’t have been there otherwise.
JW: Like what?
MG: Women coped differently than men did because of their biology. Women’s biology means menstruation and childbirth. That was verboten by the Nazis, and they were subject to rape. They were subject to physical humiliation. I go into great detail about that, but also because women of that era were socialized differently. Relatively few women were independent at that point.
And so, when the women were taken into the camps, and don’t forget, only women between a certain age were allowed to live. Anyone over 45 or 50 was gassed right away on arrival because they would not be a labor force. Anyone under 15, not anyone, but most under 15, also were gassed or beaten to death, or in any way not allowed to live.
So, these women who were incarcerated, who were in the prisons, in the concentration camps, this is not universal, but many of them talk about using, consciously or unconsciously, the skills that they learned as homemakers and as women who work together in sisterhoods and women’s groups and so on, and they adapted that to their lives in the camp. If you read women’s memoirs, ultimately, you’re going to come across a line that says, I couldn’t have survived without so and so helping me, another woman.
Women tended to bond into surrogate families and took care of one another. Men had connections also, but women intensely really credited other women for their survival when they survived. Women even coped differently with hunger. Women talked about recipes. They shared recipes. And these are women who probably never cooked because their mothers and grandmothers and older aunts cooked.
But they remembered these menus. They remembered these recipes. I don’t think I would like to replicate them and serve them to my family because they’re memories that were remembered in those horrible conditions. But there are cookbooks that women have produced of these recipes. And when you share a recipe with someone else, and you have a group of women sitting around talking about, “How do you make this? You’re from Hungary, so you make crepes a certain way. You’re from France, you make them another way.”
And the arguments that went back and forth, that means that you have a sense of the future, and you’re not going to be prone to giving up. There is an unconscious sense of the future when you teach somebody something, especially if you teach it to a younger woman.
There were these socialization type differences between the way men and women coped. In fact, Victor Frankel, a name that most people know, a survivor psychiatrist, challenged, he really admonished the men in the camp who talked about food because he said, “It makes it worse for you.” Well, for women, it didn’t. So very minor things like that, that were not so minor.
Women had the ability; they had more experience sewing. And if you didn’t sew a button on the right way, you could get whipped by a guard. There were so many little things, I say little, so many natural things, routine things, the skills that women would bring. Now, men who were tailors could sew a button, but how many men were tailors.
It really changed the way other feminist scholars, and men too, male scholars, had to acknowledge that there were differences. In fact, one of the titles of one of the books I did is, Different Horrors, Same Hell. And it was the same hell. Women were not given any kind of leniency because they were women. They were beaten the same way, they were starved the same way, but their lives, because of their biology and their socialization, were different.
JW: Of course, we’ve heard about Mengele and experiments on women’s bodies. Did you run across that at all?
MG: I ran across it, of course. Especially women in childbirth who had their uteruses sewn up to see how they would manage if they couldn’t deliver when they were in labor. We have documentation of women whose breasts were cut off when they were thrown into mass graves. We have evidence of rapes and brutality, all kinds of torture relative to rape. We have evidence of being slit. Women’s pregnant bellies were slit to see how the embryo would manage. Mengele even once sewed two twins together to see how they would function. Well, of course, they died. And never any anesthetic, nothing sterile. Gruesome is not even the right word. I don’t know how to describe the horror.
JW: And did you publish a lot of books?
MG: The last book I published was called, Before All Memory is Lost. And that’s a compilation of short memoirs by women survivors who emigrated to Canada. The Azrieli Foundation in Canada contacted me, and asked me if I would do something with these memoirs that were not full books, and find a way to organize them, or those that were worth publishing and so on. And I did that.
I think I put together 20 of them in this book. It won the Canadian Holocaust National Award. It was a finalist for the US National Jewish Book Award, and I got some other surprises, too, and I met many of these women. The Azrieli Foundation organized two events, one in Toronto, one in Montreal, where they brought the women survivors who were still alive, who were in this book, to two gatherings, as I said, Montreal, in Toronto, and I met them and their families.
It was wonderful. I have good bumps thinking about it. And their happiness that their stories were told, and their families, so thrilled, I mean, hugging me, because their relatives who survived were known now. Their stories were, I wouldn’t say just recognized, but validated. And here they are, sitting in full blood. It just was wonderful.
JW: Well, in the second wave of feminism that we’re exploring here, it does seem to me that there was a disproportionate number of Jewish women participating. What do you think that’s about?
MG: You know, Judy, I think your guess is as good as mine, but I think also, we feel strongly about the truth and about making justice happen. And you can’t make justice happen if you don’t speak up or do something to change the world. Who was it who said, “I am in the world, to change the world?”
There’s a preponderance of Jews anyway in the world of jurisprudence, justice. I don’t know, is it with mother’s milk? I don’t know. But I could not in any way not do what I’m doing. And I think my sister feminists, scholars and so on, feel the same way. My hope is that we have imbued that sense, and that responsibility, to make the world better.
You know, I have to say this. I had a remarkable father. He was only, I say only, he was a bus driver. But he taught me, you have to leave the world better than you found it, and it just becomes your motivation without being consciously aware of it. I just think it’s part of the religion. If I’m not for myself, who am I? If I’m only for myself, what am I?
That’s Hillel, around the first century, so it is just part of the heritage. I don’t want to sound chauvinistic, but I don’t know any other way to put it. Jews give a preponderance of charity to non-Jewish organizations, that’s identified already, and you just have to do it.
JW: So, tell us more about what you’re doing now.
MG: I’m also trying very hard to say no to people who ask me to talk about the Holocaust. Yesterday I spoke to a group, two days ago, a zoom lecture for Northwest Arkansas colleges, and I’m still doing that. In two weeks, my synagogue asked me to talk about America and the Holocaust, the Ken Burns thing. I was a docent for that exhibition that motivated that six-hour program, and so they asked me to come and talk about that. Well, I won’t do this without lots of preparation. No matter what I know, I will prepare again, probably read two more books.
I want to go back, and I have a box full of my note cards, and a lot of the work that I did I did in the Library of Congress, because Annie’s books and plays are in the Library of Congress, and I spent a good deal of my graduate years in their reading. So, I want to go back to that, and I can’t do that so easily if I’m doing over preparation for other things. I’m adamant that I’m going to say no to something so I can go back to work on Annie [Nathan Meyer].
JW: What would you say about the influence of the second wave feminist movement on yourself?
MG: Thank goodness. As I said, it became natural for me. I never even considered not being part of what other women were doing to help other women. You know the line, “We are standing on the shoulders of those who preceded us,” and that’s how I feel. Look at the opportunities I’ve had. I mean, it’s just wonderful. I think I was hired at Montgomery College with a bunch of other women because the government says you have to hire women and minorities. So, you know, I was at the right time. I was. I really want another life so I can enjoy all these things again and see things happen.
JW: So, give us any final thoughts you want to add.
MG: I want some more justice in this world, and I want a whole bunch of Ruth Ginsburg’s to get back into the government. I really feel strongly about that. And I see my daughters and my son, very strongly following in my footsteps. In their own way. They’re not cloning me, but they are doing the things that I’m so proud of, and we have to keep doing it.
I really think we have to elect the right people. We have to march for the right marches. Is there a march that you ever missed while you’re living in DC? No, we went to everything. You just do it. And you just hope that it rubs off on others by example. I wish I had a magic statement. I wish I had something more profound to say. But just keep the torch and keep going. And elect the right people. And love thy neighbor as thyself. Isn’t that part of our heritage?