THE VFA PIONEER HISTORIES PROJECT
“As far as my connection to feminists, it’s in my bloodline.”
Interviewed by Judy Waxman, July 2022
JW: Would you please tell us your full name and when and where you were born?
JE: Judith Ezekiel. I was born in March 1956 in Dayton, Ohio.
JW: Tell us briefly what your childhood was like before you got involved in the women’s movement.
JE: I’m a historian, and of course I’m rewriting my past as I learn more about my family history, among other things. One thing I’ve been working on lately is that my great grandmother was a fairly prominent suffragist. I didn’t know it when I was very little, but I did learn it while I was still in elementary school, or early high school, perhaps.
As far as my connection to feminists, it’s in my bloodline. My parents, neither of them were from Dayton. They met in Washington, DC. My mother was from New York, my father’s family was in between Richmond, Virginia and Washington, DC. He was born in Minneapolis and then he grew up in Texas because his father got a job at Texas A and M. My grandfather did work in agriculture; he was a chemist.
They moved to Dayton in, I think 1952, because my dad got a job there. My mother was a very upbeat person who always told me Dayton was a wonderful place, and a great place to raise a kid, but I found some letters in which she laments the backwardness of Ohio. She never would have admitted it, though.
When they moved to Dayton, I heard this later — my father went first. His job at National Cash Register Company, which was headquartered in Dayton, his boss took out a map and pointed and said, “That’s where your people, that’s where the Jews live.” There was one neighborhood in Dayton where Jews could live, and it was a changing immigrant neighborhood that fairly quickly in my youth, opened up to Black people, where Black people moved in.
When I was in kindergarten or first grade, there may have only been a couple of Black kids in my class, but by the time I was in seventh grade, my entire neighborhood was almost all Black. The school district was probably 50/50, or 60% Black by then, but my immediate neighborhood was Black. My parents were very involved in open housing. They would go door to door and there would be an ad for a house for sale, and a Black couple would go and try to buy it, and they’d be rejected. Then my parents would go afterwards, and they’d offer them the house.
This was before the 1968 law that made that illegal, so they were involved in that. My father was very involved in what was called the Dayton View Neighborhood Council. Dayton View was that area I was talking about, trying to keep it a stable, integrated neighborhood, and fight white flight, among other things, and improve the community.
When I was seven or eight years old, we did a white elephant sale with other girls to raise money to put trees in our neighborhood park. Because there were too many Black people, the city wasn’t going to put trees there, and it was a barren square of dead grass. And so, I grew up sort of, with the politics of civil rights, Black power, community, very young.
Other than that, it was a beautiful neighborhood. It was a neighborhood that had been rich and had these huge mansions that had been subdivided into apartments, but were spectacular, and there were big old trees. My old school was a monumental, beautiful school that later got torn down.
We were allowed to walk and go out anytime we wanted. We were allowed to wander the neighborhood and bicycle and play in the streets and all. I thought it was the center of the universe. I thought we were relatively well-to-do because we were the first ones in the neighborhood to have a TV and a car. I had no idea that the real money was south of town. I thought the real money was one neighborhood over where some of the more wealthy White Jews moved in the White flight. It was a very happy childhood in a beautiful neighborhood.
Two defining moments I think in my development – one was when I was in seventh grade, they opened a thing called the Living Arts Center. They got some old Kennedy culture money and put it all into hiring the best and the brightest of the teachers in the fine arts. They took an old factory that we actually contributed to fixing up. I mean, they fixed it up, but we did some of it in the theater department…we did some of the stage construction and things. And you were admitted on the basis of enthusiasm. It was multi-class, multiracial. The only such institution in Dayton.
In fact, there was a supreme court case because Dayton schools didn’t integrate properly. They tried to argue that Living Arts was integrated, and later on, the schools picked up the financing. They lost that case because it wasn’t a school, it was an after-school program. We all knew we were the best and the brightest, and it was the most exciting thing in the whole world. People from around the country would come and work with us. Harlan Ellison, John Brunner, Arthur C. Clarke came to our science fiction workshop. Agnes Moorhead…all sorts of famous people came to work with us, and they were all fascinated by this wonderful institution.
I mean, there were dozens and dozens of nationally known artists who came, fine artists who worked with us. So that was what helped me survive Dayton, because Dayton really was something of a backwater…culturally, intellectually, et cetera. Then a couple of other things happened. One is that when I was in 8th grade, there was a progressive superintendent who was actually a friend of my father’s. They were involved in politics together, and he, under the guise of overcrowding but in fact to integrate the schools…he started busing. And so, I was one of the few Whites in a bus to integrate a White school. And that was quite traumatic.
And there was one case – I know of a few committed White people who are in White neighborhoods who sent their kids to Black schools, but that was just individual…those were individual acts. So, I was bused to this horrible all White school where they talked about the Jefferson kids…there was just overt racism.
But then they segregated us. They took me out and put me in an all-white [class]. There were three different levels and they put me in the advanced class which was all white, and then promptly told me that I would never be a good student there because I would have real competition. Yeah…but I showed them. I would have actually flunked 8th grade because I was not writing what they expected me to write.
These were papers that had been critiqued by people like Arthur C. Clarke in my writing workshop, and I tried to turn in the same things, and they said no, they were terrible…and I was flunking. And then they had a standardized exam. Every two years, they gave us a national standardized exam, and I had the best results in the school. So, it was clear that they were persecuting me because I was from Jefferson. And then, of course, my Black friends resented me because I was in the advanced class.
It was very traumatic. And actually, the other defining thing was the year before that, when I was in seventh grade, my brother was arrested for distributing anti-Vietnam War leaflets. The group he was with went over the sidewalk onto the school property. Two people out of the number that were demonstrating, and so they all got arrested. My classmates didn’t believe me. They all said, “Oh, Ezekiel’s brother is a communist. He got arrested.” It was a very mild leaflet. It was your legal alternatives to the draft. So that was one of the big things that politicized me.
JW: I can see that. When did you get involved in the women’s movement?
JE: It was sort of organic, the women’s movement in Dayton. I actually wrote a book on this, so I know about it.
JW: What’s it called?
JE: Feminism in the Heartland. The women’s movement in Dayton actually starts in 1969 – the Women’s Liberation Movement, obviously there were things before that. I don’t remember when, but sometime shortly thereafter, so I was thirteen when it started. Some of these people were people I babysat for, some of them were friends of my brothers, there were even some friends of my parents, but that was a little later. So, it was a familiar [group], and I had already been peripherally involved in the remnants of the civil rights movement and a little bit in the anti-Vietnam war movement, sort of simultaneously. So, it was sort of organic.
I went to a couple open consciousness raising groups. Dayton Women’s Liberation used me as sort of a token young person because I was the youngest person at all involved when I was thirteen, fourteen, fifteen. And so I wasn’t active, but I would go to demonstrations, and I went to some meetings, and I agitated individually and with my classmates in our schools to do things. When I was either a freshman or a sophomore in high school, I asked my teacher why there were no women in our history books.
At this point, there have been many riots in Dayton. And so, a good student in class asking a question wasn’t going to be disciplined. I wasn’t going to get in trouble for asking that. The nice sort of liberal white teacher said, “Oh, now, that’s a very good idea. Why don’t you do a project on the Women’s Suffrage Movement?” And snotty as I was at the time, I said, “I’m not getting paid to teach history, you are.”
There was a little group of us – for instance, at one point there was a Christmas tree in our school which had a lot of Jews in it, so we organized a clip-in. We brought scissors to school, and we cut the Christmas tree down. At the time, music, counterculture, drugs, all of that went together. Every Sunday, there was a little concert at one of the parks and I’d go there, and my friends would all go there, and we thought that was all the same thing.
The counterculture and politics were all one big happy family, as were the arts for me. The arts and politics sort of were supposed to go together. And I later found out that they didn’t…at least not automatically. So, I got involved in the women’s movement and the anti-war movement and all of that quite early. I don’t know if you could say ‘69 or ‘70, but it was right at the very beginning of the movement in Dayton.
JW: And so mostly you agitated where you could, it sounds like.
JE: Yes. So the following year, in my junior year, middle of my sophomore, beginning of my junior year, I don’t remember…there was a group of young people who were creating a free school with a group of teachers, and they were trying to get accredited, but they didn’t get accredited. I actually dropped out of high school. I’m a high school dropout and went to this free school.
The first day of history class, I went, and I said, “Charlie, I’m teaching several classes on women’s suffrage,” which was the only thing anybody had ever heard about as far as women’s history at that point. So that would have been in ‘71, I think. And Charlie said, “Okay, sure.” I went to the Dayton Public Library, and there were two books. Eleanor Flexner’s and… what’s his name? I can’t remember the other guy.
There were two books on women’s history in the Dayton Public Library system. Count them…that was it. At that point, I wasn’t driving. I could have gone to the Antioch library, because Antioch was 45 minutes away, and we used to go to Yellow Springs, but I don’t even know if a high school student would have had access to the college library. Probably not.
Anyway, I went to Dayton Public Library. There was nothing there. At that point, I wrote to my grandfather. My great grandmother died in ’65, and by the time I was old enough to have known her, she was what they called senile. And so, I wrote to my grandfather, and I said, “I’m doing this project on women’s suffrage. Can you tell me about your mother and her activism?”
And he wrote me three single spaced, really dense, typewritten pages about her and her activism. Which was really cool, and which now actually is the best source I have on her. I taught several classes and based on those two books and my grandfather’s letter in ’70 or ’71 at that point.
JW: Was your great grandmother active in Ohio?
JE: No, she was in-between several places. She worked for Clara Colby and I think she may have actually gone to Nebraska to work with her at one point. She represented Nebraska one year at the convention of the National American Women’s Suffrage Association. But then she was also a delegate from Virginia, DC and New York. She lived in a number of places. She was from Richmond, Virginia, but she was later Carrie Chapman Catt’s secretary.
According to her son, who was a very mild mannered, meek scientist, when he talked about Alice Paul, he fumed. “She set us back decades in the fight for suffrage,” and he was a little boy during this, but he remembers it, and he was very angry at Alice Paul. My great grandmother did give Alice Paul Susan B. Anthony’s desk, which annoys me, because if she had kept it, I would have gotten it.
JW: Oh, yes, the desk is there in the house.
JE: Yes. It’s part of the Smithsonian. So that was Susan B. Anthony’s desk, and she left it with my great grandmother. And my great grandmother, when Alice Paul was still working with the NAWSA, gave it to her. And I know that, because it’s Alice Paul who mentions her, and who says, my great grandmother was Susan B. Anthony’s secretary, but I think that’s totally inaccurate. I don’t think she ever worked for Susan B. Anthony
JW: What was her name?
JE: Rachel Brill Ezekiel. She went by Brill and she went by Ezekiel. She kept her maiden name for some time after she got married, actually. I didn’t know any of this when I was little, but I strongly suspect that my father at least, couldn’t oppose my feminism since his beloved grandmother was a suffragist, and a feminist actually. But of course, as I say, this is sort of looking backwards. I was just a kid, and I was just a rebel.
Contrary to now? What I tell my students – for years, I taught social movements and I taught all sorts of things related to this for many years – is that we knew we had history on our side. What’s depressing now, is we don’t. We know we don’t, or we suspect we don’t. But back then, even through the horrors of Vietnam, the police violence, the discrimination and the oppression of Black people and women, I mean, good Lord, the treatment of women when I was a kid.
But we knew we were on the way to fixing it. We were going to create a new world. And even if we were depressed about what was happening, we were upbeat. We remained upbeat.
In Dayton, one of the few things you could do at night was go to a record store because they were open until midnight and even later. And so, you’d go, and you’d listen to all the new records. I couldn’t afford to buy them, we were pretty modest when I was growing up, and then later actually, I was poor for a while. But you could go meet your friends and listen to the latest Beatles or the latest Stevie Wonder. Plus, I grew up with Motown in my neighborhood.
My brother brought home the first Joni Mitchell record, because he went to school for a year before he ran out of money at the University of Michigan. She was Canadian and she used to play in Detroit and Ann Arbor coffee houses. And so, he brought home all these amazing records that just changed my life, too.
I left Dayton when I hit seventeen. I graduated, quote-unquote, from the non-accredited school when I had just turned seventeen. I was seventeen in March and finished high school in May. And I had finagled my way into college by writing a description of the Living Arts Center work I had done. I wrote them before I dropped out of high school.
I wrote to Radcliffe, Oberlin, which is where I really wanted to go, and the University of Michigan. And I said, I’m going to do this self-managed free school, and I’m going to do Living Arts, and I’m doing this and that, and this and that, and will this hurt my chances of getting into college. Oberlin said, “It’ll help.” Radcliffe said they were indifferent. And Michigan said, “Oh, no…we can’t take you without a high school diploma.”
And then I wrote back to them, and I said, “I just want to make sure you understand all the things I’m doing. And Radcliffe and Oberlin had said, ‘Okay’.” And at the time, Michigan wasn’t as prestigious I think, as it is now. And when they saw Radcliffe and Oberlin accepting it, then they said, “Okay, you can apply.”
So, I was going to go to Oberlin and do theater. I had to audition for the theater troupe. There was a guy named Herbert Blau who had done “Waiting for Godot” in San Quentin. I don’t know if you remember hearing about that. So, I got into the college. I got into the troupe, and then Blau and all of his cohort resigned over a conflict with the administration, and there was no theater department left.
Radcliffe didn’t have performing theater, they had an academic literary theater. So, I went to Michigan. I went to this little division called the Residential College of the University of Michigan, which had – you might know some of the names, Marilyn Young, Susan Harding, Mick Taussig, Charlie Bright, Tom Weiskopf. It had some very important people from the social movements of the time.
There was my uncle, and – I can’t remember the name of the guy he did it with – there were four or five of them who organized the first teach-in at Ann Arbor. My uncle was a professor at Ann Arbor at UM, and they did the first teach-in against the war in Vietnam, and I think it was ’65 or something like that. I was going to the residential college. I traveled that summer before.
It’s a long story, but it’s actually kind of cool. I got falsely arrested for shoplifting, and I knew my rights as a radical, right? If ever you’re arrested, here’s what you do. And they gave me $1,500 to shut me up. So instead of having to work all summer, this is in 1973 and that was a lot of money. So instead of having to work all summer, I put all the money except $300 aside, and I went traveling in Israel and then went to Paris on the way back.
One cool detail about the arrest is that when I called my parents, my father answered when I was in the office of the manager. Because they said, “Okay, we searched, you didn’t steal anything. You can leave.” And I said, “That’s not how it works. You can’t arrest someone, search them, and say, you can leave.”
I called my father, and I heard the conversation, and the manager said, “But sir, it was a mere 15-minute incident.” And my father said, “I don’t see what time has to do with that. If she’d been raped in 15 minutes, would you have said it was a mere 15-minute incident?” And the guy went pale and said, “What can we do to make this up to you?”
Anyhow, I went traveling and then I went to Michigan, and I took all the radical professors’ classes. I got involved…I was involved all along, but I got more involved in the anti-war movement. ’73 to ’75 Indochina peace campaign. I wasn’t real happy with the women’s movement in Ann Arbor. It was very essentialist, lesbian separatist.
It was the time of the debates at the Women’s Music Festival. At what age did little boys become men and should be excluded? It was very white. [Inaudible] but I did get involved enough in my, I think it was my senior year. I did teach a women’s studies class. I was a TA and I’d have my own section.
I did my junior year abroad in France and I took women’s studies classes. I’m sure I went to many a protest and argued many an argument in my classes and was in the Indochina peace campaign at the beginning. I went to Michigan, and my third year I went to France, and I was going to actually take a year off and just go on my own because I thought only suckers did the junior abroad program — pay US tuition for a virtually free college in France and go with a bunch of other Americans.
I just was going to go by myself. But my dad died. The first semester of my freshman year when I was 17, my father died. We were modest middle class, but when he died, my mother was a minimum wage secretary, part time, and there were virtually no savings. And so, from seventeen on, I never got a penny from my parents and got through college with 17 scholarships. I counted them. And working 20 hours a week, which now seems banal, but at the time, particularly in prestigious universities, students didn’t work that much.
I was doing that, but I was doing all sorts of other stuff. I was doing a lot of photography. I did a lot of photography for the demonstrations that I’d send to radical newspapers. And my studies. I was studying social movements and women’s studies and all of that. And then I went to France, and I got very involved in the women’s movement in France in 1975.
There was the “MLAC” trial about feminists doing illegal abortions. It had just been legalized in ’75, but the trial was still going on. I took what was the first women’s studies class at the University of Aix and actually, I translated little pieces of Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will, because it had just come out and it wasn’t in French.
I did an oral report for a huge lecture class on feminism and rape, and the history of rape. And I was involved in a little far left organization that was very feminist, and I was in a little women’s group that was a part of that. That’s sort of interesting, because later, people from that group started a feminist’s journal that I was involved in for many years.
We just got digitized, and we just did a series of meetings to write a history of our journal. That was a little later. That was ’77. So, ’75, ’76, I was in Aix en Provence. I fell in love with Aix, and I fell in love with French politics. Much more radical, it seemed, than the U.S. Went back to Michigan, finished up a BA in which there were some women’s history and social movements and French politics.
And then I became an intern at a magazine called Seven Days, in New York for the summer. I got there because I spent my summers in Dayton after my dad died. I had not intended to, but I really needed the money, and I needed to live with my mother and support her, and my brothers did that too. In ’75, when I got back, one of my oldest friends, he was a stalwart of the radical movement in Dayton and became a radical lawyer who’s done amazing, amazing things. But anyhow, he calls me up and he says, “Hey, there’s this group of people from Antioch who moved to Dayton to organize the people. You want to be part of the people?”
And so we went, and they’re now very well known. They included Julia Reichert, who had already done “Growing Up Female.” They had just put out “Union Maids,” and a whole bunch of other filmmakers who you may not have heard of. They were all feminists, and they were involved in New American Movement, which was a little too conservative for me…a little too straight laced. Particularly because they were enamored of Eurocommunism, and I had seen what the French communist party was like. Italian would have been better, but the French communist party was no great feminist organization.
And so, I got involved with doing a project they called Summer Lights, where we would go and interview people in neighborhoods and ask them what their concerns were, and do photographs, and make what we called slide tapes. We put music, and then a slide projector, and we’d have events in communities to try to organize the community. I did that the summer of ’75. No, I’m sorry, it was after France, it was ’76. And then ’77, I graduated…I was an intern at Seven Days.
That also had some very interesting feminists. Betsy Hess, who had been in Heresies. Anyhow, it was an amazing experience, and had I been smart, I would have stayed in New York and bought a loft and been rich now. But I left for France in ’77.
JW: So, what you’re saying is, the French feminist movement was much more radical than in America?
JE: Well, the Dayton movement was quite radical, and it was a women’s liberation movement. There was no division. There was very little liberal feminism in Dayton until the late ’70s, early ’80s. And even then, most of the liberal feminist groups were created by socialist feminists, women’s liberationists.
And in fact, I went to the socialist feminist conference in Yellow Springs in 1975, where I heard, among others, the draft of what became the Combahee statement. Apparently, it’s pronounced KUM-bee River Manifesto. They gave a paper, which had an earlier version of that, that nobody ever mentions in history. They all say that was written in ’77, but I heard a part of it in 1975 in Yellow Springs.
JW: What was attractive about the French women’s movement?
JE: The French movement, and part of it was naivete and not understanding the ins and outs. Ann Arbor was very frustrating, because, as I said, it was pretty separatist. And then when I taught that women’s studies class my senior year, Ann Arbor – University of Michigan was really white. I mostly took little seminars, so it wasn’t as clear in a group of 15. There was one Black person in a group of 15, so it wasn’t as obvious.
I took one class, one big lecture class with 400 people my freshman year, and I walked into this amphitheater, and it was all-white, and I felt like I stood out. I felt like, oh my god, they’re going to do something to me, I’m not welcome here. I hadn’t been in all-white environments for many years, and Michigan was white.
The Black Action Movement that they had had, I think in ’70 or ’71, I can’t remember the figures, but it went from, I’m making this up, but 3% to 6% Blacks or something. And you’re right next to Detroit. It’s half an hour drive to Detroit, Ann Arbor. And so, when I was teaching this Intro to Women’s Studies, and one of the topics was race, and I got there, and the racism of these white, freshmen, first year students, was…brutal.
I actually turned that class into a class on race. I ended up saying, “You guys know a lot more about women and feminism, concerning White women, but you really don’t.” And I think there were two Black students in their class only. And so, I talked to them, and I apologized that they were being subjected to this, and I talked to them about how we would go forward, and it’s probably condescending to have done it that way, but that’s what I did.
I was a twenty-year-old senior in college. The French movement was very class conscious. There was very little race consciousness, and what there was concerned Jewish women more than it concerned women of color. And that’s been a problem to this very day, and it’s something that I will argue with many of my – we call them historic feminists, and not veterans. I got involved in the movement in France in ’75, ’76 and ’77, I got very involved. And I was in this journal that was started by the Cercle Elizabeth Dimitriev, which was the part of this radical organization – it was their Women’s Liberation Caucus, or whatever.
It was independent. It was a group that believed in radical self-management. My political place was in this journal, and then sometimes we would be involved in other things. So, for instance, after Mitterrand was elected – the Socialist President – the year after that, the Women’s Rights Ministry that he created organized a celebration for International Women’s Day. And I was involved in that as a representative of the feminist journal and organizing that.
JW: What were some of the things that were written about in the journal?
JE: When I got there, they had just put out the first issue, and they were doing the second one. So, my name isn’t on the second one because it was too far [along]. Concerning the US, there was an article about precisely, a radical lesbian separatist commune, and it was basically to say, “We don’t want that, we’re not separatists.” There was a lot of personal stuff that was really interesting, sort of consciousness raising pieces.
I wrote a critique of one of Betty Friedan’s books. I did an interview with Julia Reichert on Union Maids. I did an interview of my then boyfriend’s daughter. We did things on little girls and their attitudes towards women’s issues. I don’t know, like six or seven years old maybe…it was really cute. I did a lot of photography because my written French wasn’t very good at that point. So, I’d go to demonstrations. Anti-rape demonstrations, abortion rights…I was involved in organizing.
The law that went through in ’75, right before I got there, to legalize abortion was, to my knowledge, the only law that’s ever been provisional. It was a five-year law. So, in ’79, the women’s movement had to organize to see that it was maintained. I was one of the organizers of that demonstration. It’s a big demonstration. I was going to demonstrations every week for something.
JW: Have you continued to teach?
JE: I taught English for eleven years. While I was teaching English, I was teaching many hours because as a foreign teacher, I couldn’t get tenure. Whereas in France, all they had basically was tenure. They had some adjuncts, but they didn’t have untenured positions. You got tenure once you had your PhD. You had a temporary position while you were doing your PhD. Once you got it…I mean, not everyone got tenure, but you either got a job with tenure or you didn’t get a job.
But as a foreigner, I wasn’t allowed to apply for the tenured positions. I was on these special foreign positions for eleven years, and we fought tooth and nail. I was part of the collective that, probably you’d say I initiated the collective that got that changed. So, starting in ’86 I think, foreigners could apply for regular teaching jobs.
And at that point, by the time I finished my PhD, I did basically, sort of a master’s, not quite, and a PhD, on the women’s movement in Dayton, Ohio. I did my academic work in women’s history, and during that time I was very involved in the creation and institutionalization of Women’s Studies in France.
It was quite a fight. I got involved in that probably starting in about well…after the Socialists were elected. I was already doing my research, but after the Socialists were elected, they did a big conference. The National Research Institute financed a big women’s studies conference, and I think that was ’81 or ’82. And so I went to that and then was involved in some of the stuff before that in women’s studies.
I wrote a lot of articles about women’s studies in France and in Europe, and I was on the board of the first Paris Women’s Studies Association that came out of the organization of the conference. And then I was part of the French National Women’s Studies Association board. I also co-founded a group called Women’s International Studies Europe – WISE. Which was a European Women’s Studies Association. One of the things I did in both of them, is I ran the email lists. I had been to a Berks (Berkshire) conference and met Joan Korenman. She created the Women’s Studies email list in the US. And it changed my life.
I got email very early because my partner was teaching in a medical university where they got email very early. I was on an email list in the early 90’s, and I decided we should do a European one. I created and ran the European Women’s Studies list and then I created and ran the French Language Women’s Studies list for 10 years. 10 – 15 years for each of them.
We created an international women’s studies association, and I was involved in that as well. I got very involved in women’s studies, and I was always teaching some of it. So my activism, like many of us I think, sort of transferred into our teaching. I was involved in labor activity, and many years later, in the 2000’s, I was the name on the first campaign against sexual harassment in my university – but that was a while after.
JW: When was that? I’m just curious about that.
JE: That would have been 2003, maybe…something like that. There was a sexual harasser on our campus, and the women who were being harassed were either students or not tenured. There were a few of us working on the project, but my name was out there because I had tenure. Even though I was only an associate, I decided once I got tenure I was not going to shut up.
As long as I could be fired from one month to the next, or one semester to the next, I had to watch what I was saying in certain circumstances. A lot of my friends said, “Oh yeah, but I won’t become a professor.” And I said, “Fine, I’ll never be a full professor,” which I actually was in the U.S. but I wasn’t in France.
JW: But that’s why tenure exists, right? So you can say whatever you want.
JE: Exactly. And a lot of my friends wimped out on that. They got a tenured associate, and it’s true, the argument that to have power, to be able to do the things we wanted to do, you needed to be full. Originally, no. Once I was an associate, I actually did direct some theses and things, and lots of masters, even though technically I wasn’t supposed to but because nobody was paid for it, they were happy to give it to me.
JW: Now, I was going to ask, your Women’s Studies classes, what did it focus on?
JE: The French claim there are no interdisciplinary departments, which isn’t true. Because you have Language Studies, you have English departments which do what they call Civilization, which is a horrible, barbaric term that includes everything from History to Sociology to Political Science to Philosophy. It is interdisciplinary, or it is without discipline, in every sense of the term.
So, they resisted Women’s Studies because they said, we don’t have that structure and that’s an American import. So, we never got departments. We had a couple of programs that are certificate type of things, so I had to do all my work in American Civilization, in the English Department.
The original socialist government created, under great pressure from us, created five positions, named Women’s Studies in Disciplines, and I, at that point already, had a tenured position in an English department. In France, a lot of the Women’s Studies happen in English departments (because of the precedents of the women’s movement in the U.S. and in England) or in Sociology. It was a lot harder to get stuff in History, a lot harder to get stuff in Literature, et cetera.
Except for Cixous’s stuff in Literature, but that’s not feminist. She said she wasn’t a feminist. So it’s what we called bricolage – you do what you can here and there and you slip it in. Usually, you’d get one class that could be your baby, and so that’s where I would teach Women’s History and Women’s Studies, but it had to be very broad, and I was told I was being too specific.
I taught a class of American Women’s History from colonial period to present, and I was told it was way too specific and narrow focused. It’s a class that people would have laughed at in the U.S. as being way too broad to be possible. I taught that class a lot and I actually taught it both in English and in French. Then I taught classes on Social Movements of the 60’s. There was a big section of that on the women’s movement.
I forgot that when I got here in ’77, when I was about to leave, Julia Reichert said, “Hey, we’ve been selling ‘Union Maids’ all over the world, but France is really difficult. Here…have a copy of the film, see what you can do with it.” She actually handed me a 16-millimeter reel of “Union Maids.” And so, I brought “Union Maids” to France, and a friend and I did subtitles for it. I entered it in a bunch of film festivals, and I would accompany it and do presentations of women in the labor movement.
I started doing work in radical documentary films from ‘77 through probably around ’81. I helped Union Maids get sold in France. With Babies and Banners – Lorraine Gray and Anne Bohlen. Anne later became a good friend of mine in Yellow Springs when I lived there for twelve years recently. I helped controlling interest about multinationals with California Newsreel, and then I gave a little bit of a hand to other people like, The War at Home, Barry Brown, and a few other radical films, feminist or not. I went to Rotterdam, and I went to Cannes, and I went to Rennes Radical Film Festival, and I’d do talks.
One of the women from Union Maids was in France and so we had a talk with her, and Kate Millett was there. Kate Millett wanted me to help her with some stuff which was off the wall, but I didn’t – It was right after she had been to Iran. I’ve been involved with some of the people who had gone to Iran right after the revolution and came back and said, “Hey, wait a minute, you lefties who think this is a great thing, you’re wrong. And you can tell it from how women are being treated.” Nobody listened to them until six months later they started shooting radicals and they said, “Oops.”
JW: Maybe we should have paid attention. What are you currently involved in?
JE: I just got here in August. What’s more pertinent is what I was involved in before I left. I was very involved in the Black Lives Matter movement in Yellow Springs and in my college. One of the people killed a few years ago after Trayvon Martin, but before the last two years, George Floyd and the others, was a couple of miles from my university. John Crawford Jr. at the Walmart.
He had picked up a toy gun at Walmart, and some jerk said he was aiming at little kids, and the police came and killed him in a couple of seconds. Even though there were witnesses – he was on the phone with his girlfriend saying, “It’s not real.” We got very involved at the university and protesting that. Then in Yellow Springs as well, there was a group that organized, and we protested. We did a vigil in Xenia, the City Hall – that wasn’t Dayton or Yellow Springs, it was Greene County, which is very conservative. I mean, I would say it’s very reactionary. It’s Trump Land.
Every Saturday, we did a vigil at the City Hall. Shortly thereafter, I had two or three classes that were relevant. I had a class called Feminist Activism, which was a service-learning class. I was at Wright State University in Dayton. I had one class called Reproductive Politics, Reproductive Freedom. I had another class called Women, Gender and Black Freedom Movements. And then I had Intro to Women’s Studies. So, I taught only Women’s studies at Wright State.
It was amazing. I had my students…this would have been late 2014, and I was getting very angry that nobody was looking at all the Black women being killed in custody and by the police. And so I gave each student four or five names to investigate. We all got together, and in two or three different classes, we debated which cases were the most important.
We did a brochure called Black Women’s Lives Matter, that came out in early 2015. We self-published a little brochure, but it’s pretty much contemporary with what Kimberle Crenshaw and Say Her Name was doing. Not quite…I think they probably started a little before, but it’s pretty contemporary, so I’m pretty proud of that. And it got circulated locally a lot, a little bit nationally, not a lot. It was a product of about twenty or thirty different students, which is really cool.
After George Floyd and then COVID, the local group in Yellow Springs did some work, but then basically it got taken over by some young women from the local high school, and they did weekly teach-ins of sorts, and demonstrations. And so, I gave three talks, which was really fun because it used both academic and activist.
I gave one called Black Women’s Lives Matter, and I gave one on the Confederate statue issue. My great grandfather’s cousin was a Confederate soldier who became one of the first famous Jewish sculptors in America and did among others, the Confederate statue at Arlington Cemetery. So, I got involved in having the statues taken down. I can talk about that if you want to. I did a talk on that, and then I did a talk on antisemitism and Black movements. Which actually, I was afraid would be controversial, but it went over very well.
JW: Is the Confederate statue still at Arlington Cemetery?
JE: It is. It is the big Confederate statue at the cemetery. And it is one of the origins of the myth of the Black soldier because it shows a Black man in something that looks a little like a uniform, but it’s basically the White man’s enslaved person, and it’s not a Confederate soldier. It was constructed with all of the other horrible things in the 1910s as a part of the Jim Crow America.
I got involved in writing two letters about that to have it removed. One, to have it removed, and the other to get the Stonewall Jackson sculpture that he also did at Virginia Military Institute. So, this guy was named Moses Ezekiel, and he was my cousin four times removed or something like that. I had forgotten the existence of this. My grandfather had taken all of the cousins, there were 15 of us, and he had taken us all when we were like six years old, or five years old, or seven years old, to see the statue because everyone was very proud of Moses.
He did a thing for religious liberty in Philadelphia. He was very involved in Jewish freedom, and he knew all sorts of literary figures, and he was a great sculptor of his time. I had forgotten about the existence of this thing, and then after Charlottesville – we have a cousin’s email group, and I said, “Hey, cousins…we should do something about this. We can use our name for something here.”
And so, I wrote, and then other people contributed, to writing a letter requesting it be removed. And we got not just the 15 of us, but we got 42 signatures of people who were relatives. He had no descendants, but people were relatives of Moses Ezekiel. And we were going to send it to the Washington Post since it’s the Washington suburb.
We had no chance of getting anything done because the Arlington National Cemetery is part of the Department of Defense, and this is under Trump. So obviously, it was just a protest letter. It wasn’t going to actually get anything done. The day I was going to send it to the Washington Post, a journalist did an article centered around it.
I got in touch with him right away and he said, “Don’t send it as a letter to the editor. I’m going to do a separate article on it,” which he did. We did the letter in 24 hours, over five time zones – my family is all over the world. And that Thursday, there was an article in the Post, and it got a huge amount of attention, just a huge amount.
And then I got a letter a couple of years later, I got an email from an alum of the Virginia Military Institute, and he said, “A couple of us have a petition. This is a horrible institution. It’s hugely racist. There was a noose on somebody’s door. It was the last educational institution in the country to let women in. We want reform.
One of the things is that cadets used to be required to salute the statue of Stonewall Jackson at the entrance, and we are trying to get that removed.” And so, I did up another letter with a couple of other people, got a bunch of signatures, and we sent it to the superintendent of the college and every member of the board.
And mostly, I got him in touch with the journalist because he had been trying to get stuff in the New York Times and they weren’t interested. And so, this journalist who had done the stuff on Moses’ statue at Arlington did a couple of really good exposes on racism and it blew the top off the thing. And the guy who contacted me said it was thanks to me – I think he’s being sweet. But the superintendent had to resign.
They did an investigation into the racism, and they took the statue down — put it in a museum, so that was successful. So that was what I was doing in the US.
Actually, before that, a lot of my research after my PhD, there were two themes. One was the use of anti-Americanism and anti-feminism in France. They sort of go together. There’s a lot of anti-feminism in France that says, “We don’t want a war of the sexes, like in the U.S.” And they tried to push back laws on sexual harassment, saying that it was an American thing, even though the initial law was based on European Union and Canadian legislation, not on the US legislation.
Because of the Anti-Americanism, they took peer harassment out of the first sexual harassment law. I wrote a lot of articles on that, on the use of anti-Americanism in French anti-feminism. And then I did a lot of stuff articulating race and gender. Including co-found the first group that called itself Race and Gender, and that was a woman of color, except for me, research group. And they said I wasn’t quite white.
Actually, that led into a Ted Talk, and I wrote an article called “I Grew Up White: Crossing Borders and Changing Race.” That was in Meridians in the U.S. It was published in Meridians, and then it was a Ted Talk at one point. And I talked about how my race has changed and been perceived differently in different times and places. As not quite white, or as off white, or as ambiguous and what that taught me.
That came out of my group, Race and Gender. It was a really lovely group. It was a small group, but it was wonderful people, and we would combine personal lives and research. I think one of the first groups in France that really did actively look at race in the women’s studies.
JW: I Guess it’s starting from your ancestors to now, I can ask you this sort of final question. Would you say feminism affected your whole life?
JE: Oh, totally. Completely. And I think it affected my life before I knew it did. All of my aunts were tough cookies. They were 50’s housewives, some of them. My aunt in Philadelphia who was on the Kinder Transport was very active in the teachers’ unions. She was an elementary school teacher her whole life and in every progressive cause. She took her kids to the ’63 March on Washington.
All of the women, the men, too, were inspirations. My Uncle Raphael wrote a book called The Racist Mind that was just remarkable. He was involved in the free speech movement in Berkeley and in the anti-war movement in Ann Arbor. Their gender politics were conservative. I wasn’t allowed to call a boy on the telephone when I lived in their house, for instance. My mother wanted me to dress in pink, even though she never wore pink in her whole life, and I would put black outfits that I put in my backpack and change at school. She put me in little princess eyeglasses that I hated.
I did get the conservative 50’s woman’s upbringing, socially speaking. But they expected me to be smart. They expected me to go to college. They expected me not just to be smart, but whatever I did – I was allowed to do theater, whereas both my brothers were supposed to either be scientists or lawyers. So, I had more flexibility as a woman, as a girl. But I had to be the best at what I did. I had to work hard and be superior.
The pressure that was too much on my brothers, was very positive for me. And I had that as a little girl. When I was in first grade, they taught us how to block print, and I slanted my letters. And this teacher called my father and was very upset and said, I was Judy back then – “Judy cannot get these letters right.” And my father looked at her, he was a little intimidating and he said, “Ma’am, it’s not a big deal. She will either learn how to type, or she’ll get herself a secretary.” I was six years old for God’s sake. I was brought up with that.
And so even though we were not wealthy whatsoever, we didn’t have vacations, we lived in a pretty rundown house in a pretty poor neighborhood. And even though at age 17, I was totally on my own and spent a number of years being pretty poor, really scraping to make ends meet. I had that self-confidence from my upbringing that came from my great grandmother and my aunts and uncles and my mother, even though she was a pretty traditional 50’s housewife.
Her father actually, on that side the family was even more influential. Her father was a communist sympathizer and a labor organizer in the 30’s who got blacklisted in the 30’s and in the 50’s, so her mother who was just a spitfire…she was insane. She’s like 5’2” and a bundle of energy and a health food nut from the day go, she had to sell clothes door to door to survive. And he got blacklisted in the 30’s because he testified in federal hearings against union busting practices.
He was an insurance salesman in the CIA white collar organizing and they all got blacklisted. And Eleanor Roosevelt got them all minor jobs in the New Deal in DC. That’s how they went to DC. And they moved to Greenbelt which was a New Deal community where you had cooperatives for your food, you had babysitting cooperatives, you paid according to your income.
I was actually aware of those politics before I was aware of the suffrage politics. I was aware that my favorite grandpa who was just an adorable man had been close to the communist party. So, I was not quite a red diaper, because he never joined. He was more in the labor side. He was a sympathizer.
JW: You told me a little about your parent’s background, but could you elaborate some on that?
JE: Well, I tend to talk about the Ezekiel side mainly because I’ve been doing research on it recently. But as far as influences on my youth, probably my mother’s side was more important, although I grew up knowing that three of my four grandparents were immigrants. So, my maternal grandmother’s family was from Budapest, my paternal grandfather was from Kiev, and my maternal grandmother was from Kryzhopil, which is today in Ukraine.
I was the grandchild of immigrants, like so many of my generation. And they were Jewish immigrants, who barely identified as Russian let alone Ukrainian…they were Jews. Many of them spoke Yiddish at home and they were on my mother’s side very working class. And my grandfather, I think I mentioned him, my maternal grandfather was a white-collar labor organizer for the CIA in the 1930s and got blacklisted then, and again in the 50’s was close to the Communist Party.
But I knew that growing up, and pretty young, I think by the time I got involved in the anti-war movement, I knew that my grandfather had been a radical – even more than my great grandmother, the Suffragist, which I was sort of aware of too. So, I had that family background and it made radicalism much easier of course, for me, than for some people I’ve known since then.
I remember somebody once asked me about what communism was. I’d painted a Vietnamese dragon with a quote from Ho Chi Minh on my dorm wall. And somebody said, “Who’s Ho Chi Minh?” And I got all up in arms and said, “You don’t know? Our country has been destroying their country. You can start with the Communist Manifesto.”
And she said, “Where can I find that?” And I realized that they probably didn’t have it in the library and my brother had one on his bookshelf. So, I would just go to my brother’s bookshelf, whereas I wouldn’t know where to get these books if they hadn’t been in my home. I later apologized to that girl who, when I saw her at a class reunion and said I had been very arrogant.
JE: We grew up modest but very confident. We had cultural and educational confidence. My father was very brilliant. My mother was smarter than I gave her credit. And the women on my father’s side were highly educated. His mother had a master’s. His father had a doctorate. His uncles had doctorates. My grandfather’s second wife had a law degree and a doctorate. She was actually from Louisiana and would have been well over 100 years old today, so that was very unusual for women.
So, I had that too. I had the sort of working-class labor background but also the confidence that came with a different class. So, I was sort of a hybrid I think, as many of my generation were.
JW: Well, the other thing I wanted to ask you about is your book. Would you again tell us the title and a little more about how you came to write it?
JE: It’s called Feminism in the Heartland. I started my PhD in 1978 in France, where it was free, because I was tired of scraping and scrimping 17 scholarships to do my BA. And so, I moved to France. After that I got a job teaching English, at first in a university, and I had to enroll in a doctoral program. I did it just to keep the job for the year but then it turned out I liked it.
I know that women and working-class people often describe their itineraries as sort of a series of opportunities that you seize, rather than an intentional plan, but it did seem like that to me. I started doing this research. I was interested in researching my great grandmother, but there wasn’t enough material. I was interested particularly because though she was a feminist, it would have been an interesting way to combine race and gender because the national American Women’s Suffrage Association, when she was very active, was using a racist strategy in the South. I would have looked at that, but there wasn’t enough data for a dissertation.
And so, I wanted somebody that nobody else was doing, that I could do from France. I had an experience, every time I would open my mouth when I traveled, even to New York, let alone France or Italy or wherever, people would say, “Oh, you’re from New York,” or “You’re from California?” And I said, “No, I’m from Ohio.” And they’d usually say, “Where’s that?” And mix it up with Iowa and Idaho.
But even Americans, if you have radical ideas, they assume you’re from a big city on one of the coasts. And so, I decided I wanted to look at the women’s movement in Dayton. I had some involvement, but I was a little kid when I got involved at first, and then I left Dayton in ’75. So I started interviewing people, and at the time there was very little written on the women’s movement. What there was, was mainly on New York, a little bit on Boston, a few mentions of DC.
Later there was a very short thing that covered San Francisco, but there was really nothing whatsoever on the middle or anywhere other than the two coasts. And when I talked to people about the project, I’d get laughter. And they’d say, “Oh, that’s going to be the shortest thesis anybody’s ever written,” or “That’ll be a ten-page book.”
I started doing interviews, with about 60 people, and I discovered that contrary to popular belief, the feminism that took hold of the women’s liberation radical sort, and not liberal reformist feminism – and everyone thinks, okay, if there’s women’s movement in the heartland, it’s going to be much more conservative than that which you’d find in San Francisco or New York. But it turns out it wasn’t at all. And even the women who sociologically speaking, might have been a part of NOW elsewhere, were part of women’s liberation consciousness raising groups and radical organizing.
Unfortunately – I finished my dissertation, I finished writing it in 1986, and I had a contract to publish it with a very good publishing company. But I then got a job that was a four-hour commute. After that I had two kids and got too busy to get it done by the deadline. I had to start it again in the 90’s, did a whole other series of interviews, and by then there were more books and a lot more research on the women’s movement, even if it wasn’t phenomenally important amount of research.
I redid it and I finally did publish it in 2002. Also, the French required at the time about a 700-page document that I had to write, so to turn that into a 300-page book took many years. If I had been able to do it 300 pages to start, it would have been a lot easier going.
So, I do think, actually, that’s probably my greatest contribution to feminism is that book because it counters popular belief about the women’s movement. And it was a fascinating movement. A lot of the women were in Dayton because they back then, followed their husbands from somewhere else. Some people came to Antioch College, then moved to Dayton.
There was United Theological Seminary. There was a very important strand of religious women, or women who got influenced by religion. A couple of people followed a husband who was going to become a minister. And then in one case, the woman became a minister herself. In fact, she was the first out lesbian, I believe, in the United Church of Christ, and became in charge of their lesbian and gay division of the church. So, I think that I presented an alternative narrative to what we’ve seen about the history of the women’s movement.
JW: Well, great. Give us the name again, one more time.
JE: Feminism in the Heartland. Ohio State University Press, published in 2002. It emerges in 1969. I go back a little farther, I look a little teeny bit at previous movements, but just for part of a chapter, and then it ends in 1980. I started the research for the dissertation in ’78. So, it was actually going into the period when I was doing research. But it was also a good cutoff date because I think the election of Reagan was a significant turn for us all. But, the events that lead up to his election, as far as feminism is concerned, starts in ’78. So, all of the antiabortion activism.
JW: Even though, of course, he signed the liberalization of abortion in California, but he changed his mind.
JE: And Trump used to be a Democrat.
JW: Anyway, is there anything else you’d like to add?
JE: Yes, there was one other thing that I skipped over, was that I did a lot of work on privilege. I’d already done some workshops in France using Macintosh’s list of privileges. She only did it as far as race, and I was in this group, Race and Gender that I mentioned before. And also, I had been thinking about this for some time.
In the 90’s, I wrote an article in French for the journal Les Temps Modernes, which is what was Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir’s journal, and in it I quote Kimberle Crenshaw and I believe I’m the first one in France to quote her. She’s become quite popular around the world and in France for some years now. But I quoted an article of hers that was really an excellent article.
And then I started working on the idea of Whiteness. And in fact, I’m attributed with having created the French word for Whiteness. It’s in the dictionary even, now. So, I’ve been thinking about this and working on this, and then I started in Race et Genre in ’01, or ’02, whenever that was – we would do workshops using Peggy McIntosh’s list of privileges, but we broadened it because she was somewhat oblivious to issues of class and other forms of privilege.
We broadened it and adapted it to the French context and did workshops in various places. When I went back to the U.S. in ’07, and I got to Wright State, my very wonderful program chair, Kelli Zaytoun asked me what I wanted to teach, which was phenomenal. I mean, I had always struggled to slip in my baby…my classes. And here she said, “What do you want to teach?” And I said, “Oh, I want to teach a class called Privilege, Race, Class, Gender, and Nation.” And she said, “Great.”
And so, I think it was the first one in the country that treated privilege broadly. We also did ability and disability. We did location – rural, urban, and we did it in a workshop form, which was just remarkable. My very first class, I had the minister I mentioned, she was retired, and they could take classes for free. So, former founder of the Dayton women’s movement, her partner, who was also one of the founders of the movement, and a woman who was a commissioner in the Dayton City Commission. And it turned out that the other woman I mentioned, Mary Morgan, had run for city commissioner before the movement.
There were two slots, and there was a white man, a Black man, and some other white men, and her. And they said that she was running against the Black man, and she came in third, which was pretty remarkable. Then, a couple of years later when somebody resigned, they said, “Oh, it’s time to appoint a woman.” They appointed a Republican woman, even though Mary had come in third.
Mary later mentored a woman who became one of the first women elected to the commission, and then that woman, and another woman who had been in the women’s movement, who had created some Black consciousness raising groups, mentored this other woman who was in my class – who is today, the Democratic candidate for governor of Ohio running against Mike DeWine. She’s excellent. She’s wonderful.
She said it was the best class she’d ever taken. And so, I did these classes for years. They were so popular every year. I was able – even though you usually only get to do those kinds of classes every two, three, four years, I got to do that every year for the ten years I was at Wright State.
And then I did some talking about it here in France, too. So that was an important part. A piece of that was gender, but it was very intersectional in its approach. And that was another, I think, pioneering thing that I did, was teaching those classes on privilege. The workshops – someday I’d love to tell the story. I’ve written one little thing about that, but it would be good to tell more on that someday, if I could.