THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“I’d much rather be doing things in the real world as an activist.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, April 2022
JA: I am Joyce Antler. I was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1942.
JW: Tell us a little about your life before the women’s movement, your family configuration, ethnicity, and the things you think led you to become the person you are.
JA: My father was a doctor, and he had his office in our house. The house was always full of patients. I remember my father pacing the floor. My mother worked with him. She wasn’t a real nurse, but she was together with him. They had several offices, but my home was where I come into the house and there were 20 or 30 people waiting around. People didn’t get assigned spots at that time.
My overriding feeling, and I know how my father paced and worried, was that this was such a great responsibility, taking care of people. I saw it. He never had a night to himself. Sometimes patients got sick, and they died. I thought, this is not for me. I do not want to do anything in the medical field, in the human services field. I really did feel that great responsibility.
I grew up. My cousin lived with us. He was eight months older. His mother died in childbirth. His father was there some of the time, but he grew up as kind of my brother, but not really my brother. He got to do all the things that I wanted to do. All the boys played in the street. They played stick ball; they played baseball. I have a very early memory that one day I took the stick and the bat and hit a home run and I wasn’t allowed to do that. They banged me over the head with the stick and it was bleeding and I needed stitches. I ran home where my father was the doctor. That’s my version of the story.
The other thing about living with this cousin who wasn’t really my brother, is the male/female thing which was very pertinent. I do remember and I will confess to this, that one day I went to the library and the library wasn’t close. You had to cross over a big street. I was a great reader. I came home with a bundle of books, and they were all books about baseball. I got in the house, and I thought, oh, no, you can’t have these books. You can’t, only he can have them. You’re not allowed to have them.
I went outside and I threw them away in the garbage pail. There must have been about ten. And the library said, “Where are the books?” I said, “Well, I didn’t take them out. He must have taken them out because girls don’t do baseball.” So, the confession is out. But quite obviously growing up, I did feel that we were girls, and they were boys, and the twain didn’t meet. There were things we couldn’t do, and baseball is one of them.
I know Doris Kearns Goodwin, who also grew up in Brooklyn, was nurtured in sports and baseball by her father. My father loves baseball. I guess nobody told me that I couldn’t enjoy it, but I felt this. That was a part of my life.
My dear friend, best friend, Vicky Breitbart and I, went to junior high school together, and then we went to Erasmus Hall. I don’t know if our own year was 1,500 people or 1,000 people but it was a huge high school. I remember that Vicky and I pledged for a sorority, and she’s small and I’m tall. We got dressed up. I remember we went out and got gray crew neck sweaters and we had to do a performance and we sang together. We sang side by side. That’s our entrance into this sorority.
We then made the sorority and we looked at each other and we said, “Why in the world do we want to do this?” And we quit. But first we had to go through the routine. All in all, it was confusing. When I graduated high school in 1959, the 60’s hadn’t started. We were bound by the codes that we grew up with. We didn’t fit. We knew we didn’t fit. I was an achiever in high school, belonged to the clubs and probably did many things that would surprise me to look at them.
But I certainly did not understand that there were wider horizons out there. Then I went to college. I went to Brandeis University, where I wound up being a faculty member for almost 40 years. There too, there was the sense of, “What is this all about?” In that first year, 1959, we lived in dorms and there were monitors. If you went out on a date, you had to be home by 10:00 or 11:00.
One year I was the monitor. If somebody came in late, you supposedly locked the door, but they threw a stone and you let it open. By the second year, my sophomore year, I knew this wasn’t quite for me. I felt it was too regimented, too routine. Although I had wonderful professors, I went to Brandeis University at the time when it was supposedly the golden years of the university. Wonderful professors. But there was something that didn’t quite fit. The dating scene was pretty awful. How we were supposed to be, was awful.
I had some friends at Sarah Lawrence through my friend Vicky, and they were all making plans to go to the London School of Economics for their junior year. I went to my Brandeis administration and said, “I want to go to the London School of Economics” and they said, “Forget it; we don’t do junior year abroad. You can’t go.” I spent the next six months making petition after petition until I did get permission but without a guarantee of credit. They said you could take a leave of absence. You can go to London School of Economics. I got in as a transitional whatever for the year, but with no guarantee of credit. It wasn’t an official program.
That’s how much I wanted to leave. So, I went to the LSE, the London School of Economics. I didn’t even have a place to stay. I think about it, would I ever let my daughters do anything like that? I just went. And I was staying on the couch of one of these Sarah Lawrence people. I went to the housing office, and I stood online. The person behind me was also looking for a place. We decided to room together. That was Sally Guttmacher, now an emerita professor of public health, and we have been friends ever since.
We were standing on line. Those were the days when you didn’t plan as much, you just let it be. Anyway, in that year in London, I met the man who became my boyfriend and then my first husband, Niels. He was somebody who was born in America, but he had spent the last five or six years in Europe, spoke many languages, kind of swept me off my feet. After that year, we came back. I had my senior year at Brandeis. He was doing his masters in International Affairs at Columbia. I met him at 19, and the first marriage was at 22.
What I would say about that was that before I married him, I went to see a psychiatrist once, and I said to him, “Psychiatrist, I’m going to make a big mistake by getting married. Do you think I should come back to see you?” And the psychiatrist said, “Yes,” and I never came back. I married him and it didn’t last. It lasted for a couple of years.
JW: Let’s get to the feminist part. When did you get involved in the second wave?
JA: I did have an abortion with my first husband. That was 1961. That was pretty early. So that became a big part in my life.
JW: Was that a traumatic experience?
JA: It was a traumatic experience. Backdoor abortionist in New York. I thought he was a druggie. We had to look around to even find this guy. Abortion really became my issue. By 1969, I got a job as the special assistant to the health services administrator and first deputy administrator of New York City. That was a big job. The Health Services Administrator was Gordon Chase, and his deputy was Jim Haughton. There was a small super agency of about twelve people that consisted of the heads of the department of health, hospital, mental health, the health service administrator, the deputy, maybe one or two others and me. I was the only woman, and I was in my 20’s.
They would gather around in the morning and in the evening and deal with what the plan was going to be for the day, what were the emergencies, what was going to happen? This is 1969. That was the year that the abortion law repeal was pending in the New York State Legislature. The group got around the table. I was the only woman, and I was young, and they talked about lead poisoning. And we have to do something about methadone. We have to do something about long term care. That was a big issue. And there was me saying, we have got to do something about abortion.
They paid me no attention. I’ve written about this. They paid me no attention at all. One day I was talking to Jim, he was the deputy administrator, and he said to me, that’s enough about abortion. We don’t want to hear it anymore. He said, and I quote, “Only bad girls get abortions.” And I said, “I had an abortion.” Remember, this is the deputy administrator. He asked, “You had an abortion?” And then he said, “Do what you want. You have carte blanche for the New York City Health Services Administration.” I wrote the statement for Mayor Lindsay of New York, coming out in favor of repeal. It was cleared by the legal office. The health service administrator sent it to Mayor Lindsay, who had come out against the law before, now came out for it.
I wrote that original memorandum. I have all the papers about it. Then, the law passed by one vote. I’m not saying this happened because of the City of New York, but it did change its position. In many ways it was breathtaking because here was one person in this office. I spoke up, and I spoke up because abortion was a very important issue to me. And they didn’t get it. They were nice liberal men. Then Gordon Chase, years later, became the Director of the Heller School in Social Welfare at Brandeis. He came up with his wife Naomi, and we crossed paths in several ways. He would introduce me as “this is the little lady who changed the abortion law.” I felt if I do nothing else in my life, I have done that. I really did feel that way and still do.
JW: Hearing this story for the first time, that’s incredible.
JA: I wrote a small blog for the Jewish Women’s Archive, where I was very much engaged some years ago. And I told the story. I didn’t say it was me. I said, someone said “bad girls get abortions.” And then I told it again for Lilith Magazine. It was a short piece, and it really deserves all the parenthesis here. These were really good guys. They were. But they didn’t get it.
There was one thing that I should mention that was really interesting. We had a little women’s underground in the mayor’s office. The person who fed me the statistics about this was a woman named Dr. Jean Pakter. She was the longtime head of Maternity and Reproductive Health for the City of New York. She was an older woman. She gathered statistics every year. She did what she could, but she was in the Health Department. She was the one who provided me [with the statistics] when I wrote these position papers. We had to do something on abortion.
I had all the statistics about women who died or had morbidity from abortions, and these came from Jean Pakter, who should be remembered, and I hope she is. Then I said, “I will get it to the mayor, John Lindsay.” How did I get it to the mayor? The mayor’s special assistant was Ronnie Eldridge. I spoke to her recently trying to see if she had similar memories. She had a long career in politics, and she was the special assistant to Lindsay. After Dr. Pakter got me the statistics, I wrote a memo and got it to Ronnie Eldridge, who got it to the mayor. And there was somebody in the legal counsel’s office who helped as well.
JW: That group of women who were like helping you do the underground.
JA: That was 1970. I got married the next year after I met Steve Antler, who would become my husband. He said, “When is your third coming along?” We were married for just about 50 years. He died almost two years ago now. I met Steve at a party after the Poor People’s March in Washington in 1968. It was certainly kind of a rebel crowd. We had a romance, which I could go into in great detail. He then became part of the first faculty at the School of Social Welfare at Stony Brook, New York.
It was a new university in eastern Long Island, so we moved out there, and I kept my job at the New York City Health Department, which was really important to me. I did the back and forth for a while, but it was two hours on the train. Then it became too difficult, and I eventually quit the job. Because we were out there, I became a graduate student at the university. I was writing a play at the time, a historical drama that was published in 1973 called Year One of the Empire: A Play of American Politics, War, and Protest. I was writing it with Elinor Fuchs, later a professor of dramaturgy and dramatic criticism at Yale. The last big production of the play was at the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York in 2008. It ran for six months.
Elinor and I met in a beauty parlor. This is the craziest thing. It was a long hair salon. If you remember, everybody had long hair then and you had split ends and the bangs that didn’t work, and we heard about George Michael’s long hair salon. All the attendants had hair down to the floor. It was very beautiful. George Michael would see women in a group, and he gave a prescription for each one, which we had to write down. I mean, it was crazy.
He claimed to have a PhD in hair. This woman I didn’t know was sitting next to me and we’re thinking like, what are we doing here? I had just come back to New York from Washington. And Ellie was involved in documentary television, educational television. We started talking about the anti-war movement. And then we went outside, and we continued talking and we said, “Why don’t we write an anti-war play?”
Five years later, we had our play, an historical drama. I did most of the research and Ellie, a playwright, shaped the play – she had much experience in theater. We wrote it together. And it became a book published by Houghton Mifflin in 1973. And then it was performed in 1980 and several times after that. It’s quite wonderful, I think. It’s got about 68 historical characters.
So how did I become involved in the feminist movement? There I was in Stony Brook. I’m doing my dissertation, and I’m taking a course in intellectual biography for graduaqte students. The course was in intellectual biography, and it was taught by a professor named William R. Taylor, who was quite famous. He came from the University of Wisconsin. He was a mentor to Joan Scott and many other historians. In the class, we had to pick a person and spend the entire semester writing that person’s intellectual biography. Maybe there were 15 or 20 in the class, and everybody had to pick a subject.
This is 1971-72. I picked Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who had been a leading turn-of-the-century theorist. And Bill Taylor said, “I said, pick an important intellectual figure. Do not pick a second-rate thinker.” That did it for me. That was an absolute turning point in my life. I didn’t even know much about Gilman, only that she had published fiction and one article which was theoretical, but how dare he say that? The man was my thesis advisor and my mentor at Stony Brook. I spent that entire semester traveling up to the Schlesinger Library in women’s history in Boston, looking at her papers and zeroxing things. Everybody else in the class chose a male as their intellectual person.
JW: Oh, is that right?
JA: Yes, that’s right, like William James. Later Bill apologized to me, and he said, “I learned something from this.” And years later, Joan W. Scott and some others did a festschrift for him and asked me to do an essay. And you know what I did? This is sort of revenge. I wrote an essay called The Making of a New Mind: American Women and Intellectual Life in the 1920s. It looked generally at why intellectual women got called second rate. Even Jane Adams, even Mary Beard.
They were called, in short, second rate and not real thinkers, because they often didn’t come up with these grand philosophical schemes, but their noses were to the ground. They were interested in how people lived their lives. What is theory? What is philosophy anyway? So that was a very formative moment for me. And then I began my dissertation. I did a topic called The Educated Woman and Professionalization: The Struggle for New Feminine Identity. This was pretty early in the Women’s Liberation Movement. This was in the early 70’s, and all of my work from there on was feminist work. By the way, I skipped a over a bunch of jobs that I had. I worked for a congressman, ran a New York City mayoral campaign. I mean, I did a lot of stuff.
JW: You’ve hit some of the highlights. But you said you taught at Brandeis for almost 40 years.
JA: Yes, I came to Brandeis in 1979. I was working on the doctoral dissertation I just told you about, and I got a call in April from this advisor, the one who had said I couldn’t do Charlotte Perkins Gilman. He said, “I just got a call from the Radcliffe Institute, and they wanted to know when you’re going to finish your dissertation because you’re being considered for a two-year postdoc.”
JW: You did it on Charlotte Perkins Gilman?
JA: No, I did it on a bunch of women. One of the women was Lucy Spraque Mitchell, who I then wound up writing a book about. She was the founder of the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. But anyway, they asked Bill, when would I finish? I had a baby that year and I had only one chapter done and he called me, and said, “What shall I tell them? You’ll get this two-year grant if you could finish it.” I said, “I can finish it.” And I did. I wrote an entire dissertation in two months. I got the grant, came up to the Radcliffe Institute as a Lilly Fellow. We had a cohort of five people one year and then another five the next year, so there were ten of us. We were chosen for our feminist biography topics. They didn’t usually specialize like that elsewhere. They usually just took a bunch of scholars. I felt we were special. I did that for two years.
Luckily, I got a job teaching at Brandeis right away, in 1979. We stayed in Boston. I was hired in American Studies, but I gave the first course the following year in Women’s Studies too. I invited the few women across the campus to give lectures. Susan Oakin came, Carol Gilligan came in, and others. I was not paid for this; this was not my job. I started the Women’s Studies program in my tiny little office. We were a group of maybe five. We were very close. This was about the time when Women’s Studies was starting across the university world. But it wasn’t easy. We had no support.
I had that little program in my office for eleven years from 1980 until 1991. They did give me a work study student after a while, but mainly we just did it all ourselves. By the early 1990’s, it became an important and well-funded program. Shulamith Reinharz, a sociologist, became my successor, but I remember how difficult it was for feminists in academia in those years.
The president of Brandeis, then Evelyn Handler, was a woman, and I went to her to say that we’re doing something very important in Women’s Studies. She was not interested. She was a scientist. She felt that she had made it up by her own bootstraps. Why did anybody need this kind of program? But she did support a women’s dinner. We had a dinner once a year where I invited all the women faculty, whether or not they were part of our program. But she was not interested in Women’s Studies.
By the end of the 80’s, Handler was having trouble with the trustees. It’s a very typical story. Nobody was taking her side. She came to me and asked “Can’t you help? Can’t you?” She wanted the women’s faculty to come to her aid, and I thought, “Where have you been for ten years?” But she didn’t stay at Brandeis. The women on the faculty grew, and it was just a time of wonderful comradeship. It certainly was one of the strongest programs at the university. And we became the seedbed for all the other interdisciplinary programs. Women’s Studies brought about Legal Studies, Environmental Studies, a couple of other kinds of “Studies.”
The other thing that I’m very proud of is that I helped start with my friend Ruth Perry at MIT what became the Graduate Consortium in Women’s Studies, a consortium of nine or ten or now maybe more colleges and universities to teach women’s studies courses to graduate students. Again, this was something that we had to fight for. Nobody wanted to do this. Who cared?
But Ruth and I were friends from the Radcliffe Institute. She’s wonderful. She’s in literature at MIT. And we had a dinner for all the women faculty in the area. We managed to get money for that. One of the things that Ruth and I were concerned about was how were graduate students going to learn about Women Studies when there were no courses in it? Nobody was teaching it. You weren’t allowed to teach it. It was the same old, same old. We felt there needed to be special courses in women and gender across the Boston area.
Well, each Department usually offered only one or two gender-related courses, especially at a small school like Brandeis. They certainly weren’t going to change their offerings, so we managed. We formed a consortium with six women, each from a different school. Brandeis, MIT, Harvard (finally), Boston College, Boston University, Tufts. But they had to have a graduate program. And we met for dinner, often at Ruth’s house, sometimes at restaurants, for a couple of years. And we discussed how to do this because the world of knowledge had changed, but it wasn’t being brought down to teaching.
We learned that Radcliffe was appointing a new President, Linda Wilson. She was a biologist. We hatched a scheme that we were going to get to her, and we were going to persuade her that although Radcliffe didn’t have any graduate programs, (it’s not a graduate college), that Radcliffe should host and provide funding for this new Consortium in Women Studies made up of schools in the area. That’s a pretty hard sell, but we did it. We wooed her, we took her out to dinner.
She liked meeting these women. And we came up with a memorandum of agreement where Radcliffe for five years, provided the space, provided the funding for the coordinator. Renee Fall was the first one. But each constituent school would pay a certain amount of money for the upkeep for the courses that would be given. And these were all new courses. We had some rules. They had to be team taught. We had some rules. They had to be team taught by faculty from different schools. They had to involve theory and practice. They had to involve gender, race, and class. There may have been one or two more guidelines.
The first year was 1992. Ruth and I, and the first representatives from the other schools, became the motherboard. That’s what they called us, the motherboard. I was the first chair with my friend Ruth. After that, there were elected chairs from the various members, but we stayed as the motherboard. And it’s now been running for over 30 years.
JW: Were you able to get funds from all the schools?
JA: We did. I can’t remember if it was $5,000 or $10,000 or something in-between. It was a hard sell. It was the hardest at Harvard. We had a dinner every year where we invited the Deans of all the different schools to come together. This took such planning. It wasn’t as if you just went to your university administrator and said, “Please give me $10,000 so we could have a consortium in gender studies.” Say what? “Where everybody else from all these other schools could come.” But we did it, and it’s thriving, and it’s in its 30th year. The consortium has classes, conferences and events and colloquia. It’s created community. Really wonderful. Community is so important.
I made a transition where I left the real world and came to academia. I should have mentioned that I had tried to get a PhD twice. I went to graduate school for a couple of months, and I thought, why do I want to do this? I’d much rather be doing things in the real world as an activist. Finally, there I was at Stony Brook with Steve, my husband, trying to go back and forth to the New York City Health Services Administration.
Probably for many people of my generation, we took our activist backgrounds and found a way into academia – that’s what I did. My activism now was in the classroom, in the university, creating a feminist space, which wasn’t always easy. In fact, it wasn’t easy at all.
I’ve written a lot of books. That’s not what I’m so proud of, but 10 or 11 books or something like that. The last one was called Jewish Radical Feminism: Voices from the Women’s Liberation Movement. It presents stories of 40 Jewish feminists.
The first 20 were women who were activists and who happened to be Jewish, but it wasn’t important to them. And the last 20 were women who were activists as Jewish feminists. The book came out a few years ago. There was a publication party here in Boston, and I invited many of the 40 women who are still here to the party. Sadly, some had passed away. Most of them didn’t know each other. It was a wonderful event. Several people met each other for the first time. Then a few years later, the American Historical Society on West 16th Street had an event in honor of the book. And all the same people were invited again. So those who came met each other again.
At this event, two women who had never been in contact with each other, who come from really different fields, met each other. One of them is Heather Booth. She is my hero. Whose hero is she not? Heather is an extraordinary activist. At this event she met Blu Greenberg. Heather has a very interesting Jewish background. It’s in my book, I won’t take up time now. It was very important to her, she was going to make Aliyah and all that. At my event she met Blu Greenberg who is an Orthodox Jewish feminist. She’s the leader of many Orthodox feminists. She wrote an important book called On Women and Judaism: A View From Tradition.
Blu and Heather would never have been in a room together. It would never happen. But they met each other at my event and they liked each other. And Blu, who lives in Israel and also has a home in Westchester, said to Heather, “Next time you come up from Washington, I’d like to have a dinner party. Please invite your friends from Joyce’s book, and some others.” So, she did. She invited twelve feminists. We had a wonderful time. And that was a couple of years ago. Because of Covid, this group was unable to get together [in person] again.
However, it’s been meeting every month for several years – this group of people who adn’t known each other. People have been added – Heather brought in some people. But the basis is the people who were in the book. Of all the things I’ve done, to write a book and then to have the book create a community is very special to me. We get together in person when we can. We have gone in several different cars to Blu’s house for lovely lunches. But now we really do meet every month on-line. People raise all kinds of issues, political and otherwise. The lesson is, I think, that you can create community. I don’t know how this happened, but it did.